Author: Marisa de los Santos
Description from Goodreads:
Everyone has secrets. Some we keep to protect ourselves, others we keep to protect those we love.
A devoted city dweller, Cornelia Brown surprised no one more than herself when she was gripped by the sudden, inescapable desire to leave urban life behind and head for an idyllic suburb. Though she knows she and her beloved husband, Teo, have made the right move, she approaches her new life with trepidation and struggles to forge friendships in her new home. Cornelia's mettle is quickly tested by judgmental neighbor Piper Truitt. Perfectly manicured, impeccably dressed, and possessing impossible standards, Piper is the embodiment of everything Cornelia feared she would find in suburbia. A saving grace soon appears in the form of Lake. Over a shared love of literature and old movies, Cornelia develops an instant bond with this warm yet elusive woman who has also recently arrived in town, ostensibly to send her perceptive and brilliant son, Dev, to a school for the gifted.
Marisa de los Santos's literary talents shine in the complex interactions she creates between these three women. She deftly explores the life-altering roller coaster of emotions Piper faces as she cares for two households, her own and that of her cancer-stricken best friend, Elizabeth. Skillfully, de los Santos creates an enigmatic and beguiling character in Lake, who draws Cornelia closer even as she harbors a shocking secret. And from the first page until the exhilarating conclusion, de los Santos engages readers with Cornelia, who, while trying to adapt to her new surroundings, must remain true to herself. As their individual stories unfold, the women become entangled in a web of trust, betrayal, love, and loss that challenges them in ways they never imagined, and that ultimately teaches them what it means for one human being to belong to another.
First Sentence: "My fall from suburban grace, or, more accurately, my failure to achieve the merest molehill of suburban grace from which to fall, began with a dinner party and a perfectly innocent, modestly clever, and only faintly quirky remark about Armand Assante."
Though, for some reason, Belong to Me is treated as a standalone, it's really not. I'm not sure why the publisher decided not to market them as a series, since they are directly linked. Oh well. I read the first book, Love Walked In, a few years ago, and I was really impressed. Ever since, I've recommended it to people, but, with my memory and the way my taste in books can change and grow over time, I wondered if it was really as good as I remember it being. Well, if Belong to Me is any sort of reliable indicator, then yes. I highly recommend reading Love Walked In first, then moving to Belong to Me.
All the same characters from Love Walked In are back. On the surface, de los Santos' books look like chick lit, like girly, light, fluff books, at least that's what I get from the covers and the titles. While her books do, admittedly, have way more female appeal, I would in no way mark them as 'chick lit,' though the boundaries between 'chick lit' and 'women's fiction' and 'literary fiction' are hazy to me at best. De los Santos' novels are packed full of emotion and wit and hope, and are incredibly beautifully written. There are authors whose prose I just glory in, immersing myself in their words as though they were the perfect temperature pool, and de los Santos belongs on that list.
Belong to Me may be a bit of a cheesy title, but it speaks directly to the main thrust of the novel: belonging. Each of the main characters struggle with finding a place to belong, and, perhaps even more, with finding a place where they belong that doesn't fit their initial expectations. These themes move me so much, because, really, aren't we all looking for that place where we belong, that person that makes us feel at home wherever we are? This is one of those books that makes me want to believe so hard that happy endings are possible, not so much because 'true love' is real, but because a more basic, more enduring, more real love is out there and that people will work to preserve it.
De los Santos writes from multiple perspectives, a common, though still daring, writerly move. Not only that, but she writes with one first person perspective and the others in third person limited. In both books, the reader lives in Cornelia's head, follows her around in first person, feels directly with her. In Love Walked In, the other perspective is that of Clare, a girl whose connection to Cornelia is not immediately apparent. In Belong to Me, we have Cornelia's and two more: Piper, the queen bee of Cornelia and Teo's new suburban neighborhood, and Dev, a brilliant young teen.
Cornelia and Teo have just moved into a house in the suburbs for his new job. She's a city girl, and doesn't like the sniping of the local women; she feels lost without friends, without the buzzing of the city. I may be biased by the storytelling methods, but Cornelia is my favorite character. In fact, for the first hundred pages or so, my mind wandered a bit when the story went to the other perspectives, because I just didn't care as much about the others. A wholly forthright person, she protects people, loves poetry and sometimes lets her temper get the better of her. Cornelia has a unique way of phrasing thing and a brutal honesty about the selfishness of her emotions that makes me relate to her so much.
I hated Piper so much at first. You're supposed to, of course, but that doesn't make her any less awful. She's one of those people: perky, bitchy, obsessed with being the best, etc. As I read her perspective, I just kept fantasizing about stabbing her with a nail file. Then, though, she changed, rather suddenly, but not unbelievably. Her very best friend, possibly her only true friend, is dying of cancer. She throws herself into caring for Elizabeth, and, for the first time in her life almost, gives no thought to her image. Her struggle is to discover that she doesn't belong where she thought she did, as the queen of society, but as a person with wants and desires, even if they don't make her popular. It's amazing to me that de los Santos made me care for her character.
One of my very favorite over-used characters is the genius child. Yeah, I know there are far more genius children in fiction than in real life, but I just don't care. If I have to read about children, they damn well ought to be clever. Dev fits that perfectly. He has such a thirst for knowledge, about poetry, string theory, friendship, and his father, who he doesn't know. His mother left his father because she knew he couldn't take care of the baby, but Dev resents the man for not coming to find him, while also hating himself for still clinging to that fantasy.
So, yes, the characters are marvelous. You know what's even better? Their relationships with one another. It's one thing to have great characters, and another thing entirely to make their friendships and romances ring authentic and awkward and painful and true, but de los Santos hits those notes just right. I'm not a big crier, but my eyes did get a bit teary, both from sadness and happiness, more than once. Friendship isn't often enough of a focus, but each of these characters have friends who feel real, and who will have their backs.
The one last thing I feel that I must say about this novel before I wrap the review: de los Santos surprised me. Finding a book that can really sweep a rug out from under your feet is a rare thing, at least for me. She has this way of weaving story lines together in such a way that I think I know where things are going, but then BAM! they go somewhere else. I may have yelled at the book a bit in frustration when I got to the twist, because I didn't want the characters to be unhappy at all.
Obviously, I just love this book. I'm honestly not entirely certain who to recommend this book to, because I'm having trouble sticking it in a box. Basically, if you enjoy beautiful writing, pop culture references, and women's issues, then you should really read Marisa de los Santos.
"'Sometimes, happiness feels so fragile,' I said.
Teo expected me to say no. I sat up so I could look at him.
'Everybody's,' I said gently.
I thought that he would touch my belly, but instead he touched my face. He slid his thumb carefully along my jaw.
'So what do we do about it?' Teo asked.
'You tell me.' I had my own ideas, but I needed to hear his. I held my breath.
'Live. Forget that it's fragile. Live like it isn't.'"