Friday, September 5, 2008

Love Walked In

This novel by first-timer Marisa de los Santos was recommended to me a few weeks ago, and I was already a couple chapters into it before I saw the "Romance" sticker on the spine (complete with two snuggling hearts for emphasis). I was mortified, but by then I was already hooked by the very thing that led to the recommendation in the first place: The author's mastery of language and imagery is so delightful you want to re-read passages outloud to whatever warm body is nearby. (Don't worry, I resisted.)

Love Walked In starts out as two parallel stories. The first involves a 30-something woman named Cornelia who is smart and sassy with a passion for old movies, but has yet to find direction in real life. Her story begins with a handsome, charming man coming into her life and sweeping her off her feet, making her feel like all her Cary Grant dreams are coming true.

The second story is much less idyllic. 11-year-old Clare appears to have everything she could ever want, but her rich and beautiful mother is spiralling into severe mental illness and on the verge of a serious breakdown. The novel goes back and forth between the two stories, until events bring Cornelia and Clare together. As their lives merge, the story takes a new direction and together they are able to find the different forms of love that each is missing.

The story itself was cute, but the more it progressed the more it started to feel like a weary soap opera. Well, no, it wasn't nearly melodramatic enough to be a soap opera. But when some very serious events happen, they are portrayed so shallowly that it's hard for the reader to care. For instance, one character is killed in a car accident. But it happens at a time when things with this particular character are getting sticky and complicated, so the car accident serves as a very convenient and tidy way of writing this person out of the script. This is just one example of several that occurred with increasing frequency the more the story progressed. Unexpected plot twists are great, but not when they feel awkward and amateurish.

This is Marisa de los Santos's first novel, so maybe she'll improve. But while the story itself was a disappointment, the writing kept me coming back for more. (How strange, it's usually the other way around!) She is beautifully poetic at times and bitingly down-to-earth at other times, and all without losing consistency in her narrative voice.

Here are some examples:

It was an ordinary day -- palpably ordinary, if that makes any sense, like it was asserting its smooth usualness. A Saturday, loud, smoke already piling up and hovering like weather over me and the customers in Cafe Dora.....

Except that...a minute before the cafe door opened one more time, the ordinary day turned itself up a notch, in preparation.

The light falling through the high, arched windows went from mellow to brilliant, turning the old copper of the espresso machine to pure gold. And the music -- Sarah Vaughan, whom I worship, singing George and Ira, whom I worship -- was suddenly floating and dipping like some kind of bird in the clear space above the cigarette smoke and chitchat. The coffee smelled sublime, the flowers I'd bought that morning pierced the air with their blueness, the coffee cups lost their chips and glowed eggshell-thin, and standing in my red sweater and vintage suede skirt, my boots solidly on the floor, I felt almost tall.

And another one:

There's a kind of tenderness that's only possible in the predawn hours, a blue-gray, lonely tenderness that comes from dim lights and sleepiness and immense quiet. A kind of tenderness and a kind of hope.

Link those passages with this:

If you've ever considered having a conversation about your sex life in a South Philadelphia cheese shop, stop that thought in its tracks right now and wring its scrawny, little neck.


I'll tell you why, you know I will.

And this:

Before you get your political hackles up -- and I like those hackles; they're fine hackles, I have a set myself -- I should clarify that I'm not talking about choice as we ordinarily use the word.

See what I mean? And that's why I've had a hard time deciding how I feel about the book. Even though the serious topics of mental illness and death and unrequited love are treated with about as much depth as a sitcom script, when it's packaged in such delightful writing, how can it not win some affection?

For those of you wondering about the "Romance" classification -- it was not the kind of romance you might expect from those tell-tale snuggling hearts. There was only one love scene, and it was treated in very general PG terms with less graphic content than, say, your standard spy novel. There really wasn't enough of that kind of content for it to have earned that classification. In fact, as far as objectionable material is concerned, I was more bothered by the language. There wasn't much, but when it did make an appearance it was with way more f-words than were really necessary. (Of course, in my opinion, even one is "way more than necessary.")

So there you have it. I enjoyed her writing enough that I might be willing to try another novel of hers. I felt like this one teetered between great writing / lame story, so I'm curious to see which of those camps she really belongs in. But if her future books continue to get the snuggling hearts stamp, I might have to pass!


  1. I am so glad you are reading books right now because I've barely cracked one open. Shameful, I say!

    I know how someone's writing can suck you in and capture your attention. I feel that way about Haven Kimmel. I'll keep an eye out for future books by de los Santos when she's improved her technique.

  2. You have a real gift for analysis, and for communicating your feelings. I kind of doubt I will read this one, but I loved reading your report.

  3. It's good to hear about a book I would never have picked up off the shelf. I would have seen the title and the snuggling hearts and walked right by. I may still, but at least now I know to look out for this author because even if there were flaws in the story, it's nice to find a writer with good style.

  4. My sentiments exactly, Rach. One thing I neglected to mention is that Marisa de los Santos is an award-winning poet -- hence her skillful use of language that makes her writing so compelling. But that doesn't automatically translate into being a good storyteller, and while I'm curious if her work in the future will be better, I have a whole list of other things I'd rather read first!

  5. Anything beyond 3 days and a book is out of my memory so I had look back at my own review to remind myself what I thought of it. And I agree with you, mostly.

    I didn't love the writing as much but I thought that the story was sweet. Some of your quotes however reminded me of one of my biggest los Santos put too much of herself in the book. It's a pet peeve of mine when it is obvious that an author is using herself as a basis for her character. But it's a testament to either her writing or the story (I still can't remember which) that I liked the book. I've kicked a lot of books to the curb for less.