Love Walked In
by Marisa de los Santos
(Plume, $14, PG-13) ISBN 0-452-28789-8
****
Award-winning poet Marisa de los Santos accomplishes something remarkable in her debut novel as she manages to make Love Walked In both hip and old fashioned at the same time.  This charming yet heart-wrenching story about the transformative power of love was the first can’t-put-it-down book I’ve read in months.  Only a slightly icky secondary plot kept it from becoming a true keeper.   

Cornelia Brown manages a coffee shop in downtown Philadelphia, dreaming of movie stars and wondering why, despite her advanced education, she is treading water personally and professionally at age 31.  Then the door opens and Cary Grant’s doppelganger walks in.  Cornelia is instantly convinced that she’s found her soul mate in Martin Grace, a dead ringer for her favorite actor in her favorite movie, The Philadelphia Story.  And Martin seems just as enchanted with Cornelia.  Their whirlwind courtship is full of interesting dates and witty banter.  Surely this is what Cornelia has been waiting for in order for her life to truly begin.   

Meanwhile, amidst the deceptive calm of the wealthy suburban Main Line, 11 year old Clare Hobbs is living a nightmare.  Her beloved mother Viviana is slowly losing touch with reality and Clare doesn’t know where to turn for help.  How should she deal with a mother who buys scores of unnecessary towels, takes Clare out of school for no apparent reason, flirts inappropriately with a young restaurant waiter and demands that Clare drink a glass of wine?  At first Clare devises strategies to conceal her mother’s bizarre behavior from teachers and friends, but when her mother disappears altogether Clare has no choice but to seek out her father, Martin, whom she barely knows.   

Love walks in again to Cornelia’s coffee shop, but little does she realize that this time the impact will be even more profound.  Cornelia feels an instant bond with the daughter that her perfect boyfriend somehow neglected to mention, and when Martin proves to be as unreliable as he is charming, Cornelia becomes her de facto foster mother.  But as the search for Clare’s mother intensifies, Cornelia isn’t sure what will be the best outcome for herself and the young girl she now loves.   

Love Walked In is told in chapters that alternate between Cornelia’s first-person and Clare’s third-person narrative.  Somewhat surprisingly, the chapters in Clare’s point of view are more successful.  Your heart can’t help but break as this remarkable girl endures her mother’s downward spiral, using famous literary orphans as her role models and obsessively list-making to exert some small measure of control on her irrational world.   

Cornelia is a little harder to embrace.  Her chapters are more poetic and flowery, and at times they border on narcissistically self-involved.  How many times do we have to read that Cornelia is tiny and adorable, like Audrey Hepburn?  Yet there’s no doubt that she is willing to sacrifice everything for a girl who is really a stranger, and she matures as the novel progresses, learning the difference between the idealized love of romantic comedy films and the much more messy real-life version.  Cornelia’s frequent references to her favorite old movies and show tunes by Gershwin and Cole Porter give the novel an old-fashioned romantic feel, but the narrative has plenty of 21st century irony as well.   

Secondary characters Martin and Viviana are also brilliantly depicted.  The debonair but feckless Martin, especially, would be an easy character to hate, yet there’s a glimmer of a good person just beneath the surface.  There is an additional character who holds the promise of the true love that Cornelia thought she saw in Martin, but his long-standing relationship to her makes their romance an uncomfortable one.   

The novel has already been optioned as a film starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Cornelia, despite her lack of resemblance to Audrey Hepburn (and the fact that she is 10 years older than the book’s heroine).  I predict that Hollywood will remove all of the wit from this story that skillfully walks that fine line between effective drama and manipulative melodrama, turning it into a three-hanky cornball weeper.  During these cold winter months, you need a book that will warm your soul, and Love Walks In perfectly fits the bill.   

--Susan Scribner


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