In the midst of still plowing through Middlesex, a beach vacation arrived. Middlesex is, and likely always will be, one of my favorite novels — it is not, however, a sunny beach read. So, after climbing dunes, diving through waves, and wandering down piers to picturesque lighthouses, I reached into one of my girlfriend’s beach suitcases (it’s too big to be called a bag — if you saw it, you would agree) and decided to monopolize her novel. So I came to read Love Walked In, the debut novel by Marisa de los Santos (a pretty good poet, actually).
The description on the back reads When Martin Grace enters the hip Philadelphia coffee shop Cornelia Brown manages, her life changes forever. But little does she know that her newfound love is only the harbinger of greater changes to come. Meanwhile, across town, Clare Hobbs–eleven years old and abandoned by her erratic mother00goes looking for her lost father. She crosses paths with Cornelia while meeting with him at the cafe, and the two form an improbable friendship that carries them through the unpredictable currents of love and life. Invoking classic movies to illuminate the mystery and wonder of love in all its permutations, Love Walked In is an uplifting debut that marks the entrance of an enchanting literary voice.
All of the poorly phrased sentences and the lack of proper grammar in the description above are not the result of my, admittedly sometimes lazy typing, but are instead errors in the text on the back of the novel. The book as a whole is littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors — shocking, as one would assume that a decent editor had taken a gander at it, and it was eventually published by Penguin. Nonetheless, those kind of silly errors detract only more from what is already a ridiculously silly book.
It starts out pleasantly enough: two main characters trade points of view, which is one of my favorite methods of story-telling: Cornelia recounts her story in first person, while Clare’s is via limited third. I was immediately intrigued by this device — though there’s never any reason for the separate styles of narration — it’s just. . .there. The point of view is immediately also connected to each character’s favorite medium of expression — Cornelia favors old movies, while Clare enjoys older books about orphans. Clare’s love is a clear foreshadowing of her struggles in the novel, and also likely there to inform the reader that the 11 year old is wise beyond her years. Cornelia’s obsession with old movies. . .anyone’s guess. What begins in an intriguing manner is never quite carried out or resolved.
It’s the same thing with the plot. The beginning is somewhat interesting and engaging — in Cornelia’s black-and-white tinged world, she meets a near-perfect man who looks like he walked out of a Cary Grant movie. She’s utterly smitten, while the reader easily guesses that this man is not as perfect as he seems. Clare, meanwhile, realizes that her mother is slowly going crazy, and begins stockpiling food and putting together lists to help her hide her mother’s deteriorating condition from the world.
It’s when the two characters come together that the novel really begins to go downhill. Clare, who was a resilient, clever girl on her own, quickly loses all emotional depth once she finds adults to take care of her. Cornelia, who had been deluded and self-denying for the first half, abruptly becomes an emotional savant and is able to pull the cloth from her own eyes. There is no slow build to this discovery — everything that she realizes is done abruptly.
And then, what really gets my gander, is the ending. The book is mostly focused on the saccaharine, cross-generational story of Cornelia and Clare and their growing relationship — which, once again, is abrupt and lacking any nuance. They love each other, they mirror a relationship Cornelia had with an elderly neighbor, they are the family of each other’s hearts, if not of their blood. Halfway through the novel (really, only about a chapter after Cornelia and Clare meet) another man enters the story — he’s Cornelia’s brother-in-law, and he is quickly described as handsome, smart, funny, sensitive, caring, generous, etc. etc. etc. Cornelia adamantly states that she is not in love with him. It’s not hard for the reader to guess where it’s going. Still, for the next hundred pages she insists that she is not in love. And then, literally in the length of a paragraph, she decides that she is. At that point, a lovely deus ex machina comes in (I wouldn’t want to spoil what it is), Clare and Cornelia pull about, and it becomes a love story.
Just to be clear: I love a good love story. Love it. And I especially love the stories that play out in the background of other drama — the love stories playing out in the background of many of Isabel Allende’s novels, or of A.S. Byatt, or the generational love stories of Amy Tan and the Little Prince. Love Walked In tried to tell two love stories, and it did it by pushing love to the very front — the book wasn’t about anything except for love — but there were no obstacles to either of the loves in the book. There was no pain, no struggle, and therefore no reward for the reader. The plot and the theme were disconnected — which led to one of the most disappointing novels that I’ve read this summer.