Martin Grace is bound to London on a business trip when he meets Cornelia Brown, manager at a trendy coffee spot in Philadelphia. “Come with me,” he asks her after some brief, witty repartee. “My mother wouldn’t like it,” Cornelia coyly answers the total stranger. End of story? I suppose in real life it might have been, but not in Marisa de los Santos’ Love Walked In, which owes its heritage to classic romantic movies out of which this kind of exchange would have been perfectly natural.
No, the story doesn’t end with Cornelia’s proper refusal. Martin contacts her after he returns from London and sets into motion a complicated chain of events that reveal to Cornelia the true nature of love and a life worth living. Love Walked In is NOT, I assure you, a romance novel. I am particularly dis-inclined to read those types of novels (to each her own!), so I never would have finished it if I felt it leaning in that direction. It’s more a novel about love – how it happens, how it doesn’t, what it does to us, and what we do for it.
The book jacket explains that de los Santos is an award-winning poet, and I can see that through her writing of this novel. The story is written partially through Cornelia’s first-person account of her life; Cornelia’s voice is quirky, honest, rich, and totally engaging. The other half of the story is told third-person omniscient around Clare, a young girl unexpectedly introduced into Cornelia’s life. The see-sawing of storytelling could have been a disaster, but de los Santos handles it very well and quite seamlessly.
There are numerous references in the novel to classic movies, almost so many that you need a “suggested viewing guide” at the end in order to catch up with the main characters. Films like The Philadelphia Story, any Cary Grant flick, even some with Bette Davis or Veronica Lake or Grace Kelley will do. The continuous references create a type of atmosphere itself in the novel, and you do start to see the characters in a sort of faded-edges, backlit kind of way. The author throws in enough language (I would say it’s relatively “mild” on my prude scale) and a couple of sexual encounters to make the book contemporary, though. And everything isn’t always tidy or done with a soaring soundtrack.
Love Walked In is a lovely combination of simple and austere, yet complicated and heartbreaking. I found myself emotionally involved with the characters and ultimately wishing that these were the types of people less likely to be found on the pages of a book – or maybe a movie set – and more likely to be found in the everyday world around me. What I CAN take away from the novel is Cornelia’s conclusion about life: “A real life isn’t getting what you want; the achievement, the privilege, too, is knowing what you love.”
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