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Book Review : A Deaf-Blind Hero Copes With Love

February 09, 1989|BETTY LUKAS | Lukas is a Times copy editor.

Of Such Small Differences by Joanne Greenberg (Henry Holt: $18.95; 262 pages)

In "Of Such Small Differences," Joanne Greenberg, who has such informed empathy with people who cannot see or hear, once again guides her readers through their separate and acutely sensate world, bringing dimension and illumination wherever she goes.

This time, the author of "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"--and nine other novels, including "In This Sign" (a Hallmark Hall of Fame Christmas special)--expands our understanding of this special population via a love affair between a young seeing-hearing woman and a young deaf-blind man whom she meets while serving as a volunteer driver for a group of sightless people.

Greenberg (who wrote "Rose Garden" as Hannah Green) has a special gift for forging illuminating links between the world of so-called normal people and the world of those whose lives have been circumscribed by psychic or physical barriers. She excels at describing the inner processes of those whose sight and hearing are no longer among their natural resources.

Cares for Himself

And after spending time with the inhabitants of both worlds in this wise yet unpretentious work, one wonders if our predictable sympathy for the shortchanged is misplaced. John, our hero, is a published poet (albeit greeting cards at the moment), a thoughtful young man who has a steady job as a second-hand clothes-sorter. His priorities are in order, his survival skills honed at the hands of demanding teachers and special schools. He prepares his own meals, maintains a scrupulously clean and orderly apartment and takes parental pride in caring for his cat, who never wants for food, water or attention.

He naturally gets immense satisfaction from these accomplishments. He needs some help for obvious activities, of course, but, for the most part, John takes care of himself, an assignment requiring his undivided attention.

What happens to his attention and how his life changes when he meets Leda the actress, an exuberant, all-nourishing earth mother with more than a touch of disorder in her personality, supplies the touching ingredients for this uncommon love story.

We never know for sure why Leda--whose unsettled, wanderlust existence has been filled with all sorts of men--falls in love with John. But we suspect the reason is her bountiful, giving nature, plus her "propensity," as one of her friends tells John in a vicious put-down, "for picking up--uh. . . ."

But the motive is insignificant to John. He is 25 and more than ready for love.

'Talk' to Each Other

They begin living together not long after they meet. Leda is not only a passionate but patient teacher in matters sexual but she is skilled at finger spelling, which makes their introduction meaningful and allows them to develop a relationship that vaguely approximates conventional communication. They are able to "talk" together.

Because Leda has lots of friends, John is exposed to more seeing-hearing people than ever before. And, in a curious irony, the more he learns about life in the sighted world, the more he wonders if he's really missing very much. Life there is so complicated and hectic. And, besides, why does Leda seem to miss so many clues that inform him of life? After all, she can see and yet she does not see as he does! This confuses and irritates him. It is only one of the several communication variants that separate their worlds.

Ultimately, of course, these minor but fundamental distinctions create lesions and alter feelings. "It suddenly occurred to John that the world he shared with Leda was of a season . . . the relationship had gone on changing in both of them; he had not been accepted in the world she occupied and she had not done well in his. She was angry at having to be his eyes and ears with his family. She wanted things he could not see or hear. He wanted a world she was perhaps unable. . . . These truths hit him like a wall in a park."

What happens to their romance is not unlike what happens to a lot of romances--with such small differences that one needs to be reminded they exist.

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