|Regular Red Dress Ink readers may want to think twice about picking up this novel if they expect the usual hijinks from a heroine whose biggest crisis is finding a date to her sister’s wedding. Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven? is a classic tear-jerker terminal disease novel, updated for the 21st century. So instead of a noble young thing sinking into her pillow, we have a wisecracking 40 year old single mother who gives orders even as she’s throwing up. Instead of a grieving husband or girlfriend, we have a best gay pal who watches Barbara Stanwyck movies with our ailing heroine. And instead of an ending that makes you cry, we have…well, sorry, some things never change.
Journalist Lily Waters agrees to get a mammogram only because her editor at the Herald Tribune wants her to write a column on breast cancer awareness. She never dreamed that the routine exam would find a spot, or that the spot would be diagnosed as aggressive cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes. Suddenly this single mother of two is battling for her life, with the help of her best friend Michael Angelo, who has been there through thick and thin over the past 20 years, including 1980s big hair, Lily’s marriage and divorce, and lots of wacky birthday stunts. Michael coaches her son’s Little League team and helps Lily cope with her daughter’s occasionally stormy adolescence, so there’s no one else Lily would trust to raise the children if the worst case scenario comes to pass. But will Lily’s ex-husband (a.k.a. Spawn of Satan), now remarried and living in England, allow his children to be raised by a gay man who is not even a blood relative? Will Michael’s love life suffer if he becomes a full-time single parent? Lily is running out of time to answer these and other questions, but she’ll fight like a tiger to protect her children, and playing fair may no longer be an option.
The novel is told in alternating chapters by Lily and Michael. Lily is one of Orloff’s trademark wisecracking but caring heroines; she manages to be lovable even as she is annoying as hell. Her childhood is alluded to only briefly, and I never felt I fully knew her except as the stereotypical tough-but-tender broad. However, I definitely identified with her complex feelings about sexuality at age 40. God bless Orloff for nailing that bittersweet combination of regret and relief about no longer being a sexy young thing.
Surprisingly, Michael made more of a strong impression on me. Gorgeous and slightly vain, the English professor and aspiring novelist was devastated physically and emotionally when he was “outed” in college, and living through the early days of the AIDS epidemic further cost him additional pieces of his heart. But he’s dedicated to Lily and her children, and once he finally comes to terms with the pain of his past he finds an intimacy he never imagined. It’s impossible to read the excerpts of his autobiographical novel and not be affected by the trauma he endured just for being himself.
At 250 brief pages, the novel feels slightly underdeveloped. We don’t spend much time with Lily before she gets sick, so we don’t get the full impact of what is being lost, other than the basic sadness at any human suffering. The way she fights for her children and keeps up her Attitude-with-a-capital-A is admirable; I wish I had felt it more deeply, as I did with Michael’s gut-wrenching novel. I’m writing this review shortly after Hurricane Katrina has wreaked devastation on thousands, so Lily’s plea to love our family and friends because they could be lost at any moment is particularly poignant. In the Chick Lit world of boyfriends, handbags and makeup, it’s good to be reminded that there are more meaningful things to care about and be thankful for.