Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book review: Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos

When Marisa de los Santos’ first book, Love Walked In, came out, I read it with no prior knowledge of how good it would be. De los Santos was a poet before she turned novelist, and this couldn’t have been more apparent to me as I read it. I noticed her ability to bring small, eloquent details to the forefront that give depth and beauty to her writing. I also thought that she gave her wonderfully unique characters Cornelia, Teo, and Clare their own, very distinct voices. So I hoped for a lot from her second novel, Belong to Me, which continues the story began in Love Walked In.

I was left a little disappointed. Cornelia and Teo Sandoval (the main characters from LWI) are now married and newly settled in their first home. They find themselves in an established neighborhood full of families who all know the intimate details of one another’s lives. Cornelia wants to fit in, but finds herself impeded by the neighborhood queen-bee, Piper. Piper is given her own chapters where you see what life looks like from her side of the street as she takes care of her dying friend Elizabeth (who also conveniently lives in the neighborhood).

Ironically, Piper’s and Elizabeth’s chapters end up showing the best of de los Santos’ writing. In the scenes leading up to Elizabeth’s death, I often found myself fighting back tears. Passages like this are just too gorgeous not to share.

“Elizabeth held her children all day long, read to them, sang to them, built Lego towers with them, touched their hair and their faces, spread their fingers open and looked at their hands. She told them over and over that they were perfect, that they made her life perfect. She told them that she would love them forever, that she would stay with them, would be invisible but with them, like air. They could talk to her, she told them, and she would listen.”

As a mom, I can’t read this without putting myself in her position; the thought of my little boys going on without me, of going where they can’t follow and saying farewell to them is unimaginable. These passages of raw, vivid writing were what made the book for me more than what was being portrayed in the story. For me, the loose ends were tied up too conveniently, the youthful characters given more maturity than was believable, and the secondary plots were too tentatively connected to add much to the story. But I appreciated reading it all the same. It just isn’t fair to compare Belong to Me to Love Walked In, because it isn’t the full package the way Love Walked In was.

I wonder if it would have been a stronger book had Ms. Santos given the entire book to Piper and Elizabeth. The twists and turns that are portrayed in their lives would have been engrossing enough fill a novel, had they been given more room to develop. And, while it was nice to know what happened in the end to Cornelia and Teo, their portrayal wasn’t strong enough, which somehow taints their characterization from Loved Walked In. They became caricatures, and I was left disappointed.

All that being said, I would recommend this book, if for no other reason than for others to enjoy the beauty of de los Santos writing. It is truly beautiful, and her talent is apparent. Just don’t expect the it to have the impact or distinctiveness of Love Walked In.