Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Book Review: Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos

There's no better way to say it – I'm a sucker for love stories.

Not the kind in which boy meets girl, fireworks explode and the constant excitement is punctuated by frequent bolts of lightning and thunder. Well, not anymore, anyway. I grew out of those, oh, say about fifteen years ago.

The kind of love story that reels me in these days is the one in which the affection is deep, the love is caring and the respect is mutual. You know, the kind that leaves you with that warm, cozy feeling of well-being, comfortable in the knowledge of the myriad, mysterious possibilities of love - long after you've shut the book and consigned it to the bookshelf.

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos' debut effort, is just that kind of a story.

It is the story of Cornelia, a thirty-something, five-foot tall storehouse of energy and integrity, who, everybody agrees, is wasting her days managing a coffee house in Philadelphia when she could be doing something worthwhile with her talents. Just what they are (other than a love for and obsession with old Hollywood movies – The Philadelphia Story the prime among them) no one can tell yet.

It is also the story of eleven year old Clare, lost in the wilderness of the problems plaguing the adults around her but holding steadfast with all the discipline and grit she can muster.

Through the machinations of fate and destiny and the stars, Cornelia and Clare meet. Above all other relationships and love connections in the novel, the one that is pivotal to the proceedings is the story of how Clare and Cornelia fall head over heels into adoring affection for each other. Nothing binds Cornelia to Clare – neither familial ties, nor professional ties nor ties of friendship – other than those of love and a fierce interest in her well-being.

As the story progresses, I realized, Cornelia's world is one in which many of us would love to inhabit. To have the friend she has; to have the parents she has; to have the brothers she has; to have the motherly, aunt-type confidant and role model she has; to have the kind of childhood she had; to have the emotional wherewithal to take a broken young child under the wing as she does; and to have the beau (oh, yes!), the love of her life, that walks into her world one day.

Cornelia's first person voice – strong and steady for the most part, but doubting as well, of her own ability to carry the burden – guides the reader through this journey. The informality of the language in which Cornelia addresses the reader serves to let him in on Cornelia's innermost workings turning him into a willing participant in the goings on.

Apart from Cornelia's voice, the strongest of the novel's characteristics is the warmth and love cocooning its people, places and events. For a story that puts its characters through various types of wringers - death, divorce, child abandonment, mental illness – that it leaves you happy and content as you turn the last of its 300-odd pages, is quite an achievement.

And you appreciate that achievement even more for the smart, knowledgeable way in which the story is told. Although half the story is told in the voice of Cornelia and the other half from the perspective of eleven year old Clare - who's seen more tragedy and heartache to fill more than one lifetime - de los Santos manages to inhabit both and a panoply of other characters that reside in her book. They are all well-rounded, with just enough of the frailties and failings to give them flesh and blood and make them believable.

Half-way through the story you forget it's a story and you root for the right thing (well, all the things Clare and Cornelia long for), to happen. What more can I say?

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