Back in late November, I read an interview with Marisa de los Santos on a writing/publishing blog. Her second novel, Belong to Me, just came out in April. It was her answer to the question “What’s most important to you as a writer?” that intrigued me. She stated she didn’t write for an audience, didn’t want to lose integrity, writes what she needs to write, and is very character-driven in her stories. This isn’t something I see often in modern fiction, so I decided I would give her a try. Belong to Me is supposed to be a sort-of sequel to Love Walked In (her debut), so I decided to read the debut first.
I admit, I worried that the author’s perception of character-driven might not have been the same as my own. In modern fiction, it often isn’t. That’s the problem with being a classics girl – modern writers usually just don’t cut it for me. In this instance, however, I was delightfully surprised. This was a wonderful book. Not Steinbeck by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t imagine it was meant to be, either. And despite not being Steinbeck, I really enjoyed Love Walked In.
This is two stories in one. The first is that of Cornelia Brown, a not-quite-ready-to-grow-up woman who’s in love with old movies and who lives life as if she’s on camera, down to the moment she falls in love with a Cary Grant lookalike, Martin Grace. The second is that of Clare, an eleven year old girl whose divorced mother is slowly having a nervous breakdown. The book bounces between the two stories until they collide, and then threads them all together until the end. There are a lot of complex subjects tackled – love, marriage, divorce, death, abandonment, family, mental illness (I felt so sorry for Clare’s mother – I recognized her disorder waaaay before she did…) – and they were all handled well. This book may not be a classic, but it certainly does touch on a lot of universal themes.
The characters in Love Walked In were realistic and believable and likable. I fell in love with them and wanted more. The plot, except in one small section I won’t reveal as it’d be a spoiler, was not contrived or forced, and was perfectly believable. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I was blindsided by a twist that blew my theories about the ending completely out of the water, so that for awhile I had no idea what was going to happen next (that doesn’t happen to me often). The ending was just the right mix of happy and sad.
Reading this book felt a lot like watching a heartbreaking-but-heartwarming mix of movies. Like a Susan-Sarandon-with-cancer movie mixed with an anyone-but-Meg-Ryan romantic comedy. I got the same feeling reading this as I get snuggled up in warm blankets on a cold winter night. And I loved all the references to old movies and books. I didn’t get half of them, I’m sure, and probably the ones I did get, I only understood cursorily, but it was a fun thematic element to lay out and it made me feel involved.
So, to conclude, I wouldn’t call the book earth-shattering, but I certainly loved it. I look forward to reading Belong to Me.