March 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

fiction

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Full disclosure may be in order before I launch into a review of Marisa de los Santos’s Love Walked In. As a veteran reader of every grade of "chick lit" -- including bodice rippers of yore -- and an admitted feminist, I am always interested in the genre of romance novels at large. How, if at all, does an author negotiate what is often a formulaic journey to happily ever after without shoving the female protagonist into the mold of a complacent, lovelorn twit and her male counterpart into a composite matinée idol aka some incarnation of a debonair billionaire/loner cowboy?

More recent novels of this sort to paint a fuller picture of especially women characters and Love Walked In is no exception. Readers will quickly understand why the novel was recently optioned as a star vehicle for Sarah Jessica Parker. It is charming. Its heroine -- Cornelia -- is as plucky, witty and lovely as any of the laundry list of leading ladies she references -- Veronica Lake, Myrna Loy and Katherine Hepburn. The novel is conceived in a manner which undercuts some of the pat constraints of the genre of romance writing without deviating from its general precepts.

De los Santos’s writing has a soft focus filtered quality much like the classic films and music referenced throughout, and though Cornelia is a modern girl, this novel still manages to read like a virtual anti-Sex in the City. There is a kind of nostalgia and hominess which characterizes and drives every relationship detailed. Cornelia manages a Philadelphia coffee shop filled with harmless, engaging eccentrics, hails from an idyllic family, has a singularly intuitive best friend and a love of old world romance, film and artifacts. The denouement is inevitable: the heroine -- in this instance, Cornelia -- meets and falls in love with her soul mate and he with her.

En route, however, de los Santos, manages to derail or at least reconfigure some of both her protagonist’s and our expectations. At thirty-one, Cornelia has been by default -- as a result of fear or uncertainty -- a comparative underachiever in her own estimation. Enter: Martin Grace, a dead ringer for Cary Grant. We, like Cornelia, initially believe the love affair between the two will be the crux of the story. The relationship between Cornelia and Martin is instead both the conduit to true love and cautionary tale about appearances and fantasies. I use the term “true love” loosely; it grows apparent that the "love" referenced in the title is broader than the “B-movie girl meets boy” variety. In Love Walked In, de los Santos pays homage to the love which infuses friendships, familial ties and one far harder to describe or explain -- the love between “kindred spirits.”

This concept of “kindred spirits” (famously mentioned in Anne of Green Gables) binds the central characters to one another: Cornelia and Clare, Martin’s eleven-year-old estranged daughter. Cornelia and Clare recognize a likeness or shared sensitivity in one another and also an understanding and love that transcends and eventually transforms their circumstances. In a curious move, de los Santos, creates a relationship paralleling Clare’s and Cornelia’s between Mrs. Goldberg, an elderly neighbor from Cornelia’s childhood, and her. I mention this because the novel layers overlapping ties and relationships; some of which are fraught with tensions, rifts or misunderstandings. Nonetheless, even these discordant strains are somehow reintegrated into a loving whole.

In her novel, de los Santos sweetly mulls over interpersonal relationships and journeys to self-discovery. Her narration -- vacillating between first person (Cornelia) and omniscient third person -- is engaging in part because of its shifting focus from Cornelia’s interior life to Clare’s. There is the occasional implausible dip or turn in plot which is at once forced and wholly necessary to set the stage for the promised happy ending. Love Walked In is not revolutionary in substance or execution. The novel offers no new revelations and may, at worst, be a little saccharine tinged. Still, Love Walked In does succeed in being an enjoyable diversion and guilty indulgence for anyone with a taste for romance.

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
Plume Trade
ISBN: 0452287898
320 pages