I just finished “Love Walked In,” a novel recommended and Christmas-gifted by my sister, who’s a big fan of the author, Marisa de los Santos. It’s the story of Cornelia, a coffee shop manager who loves old movies and whose life changes in unexpected ways when she meets a man who seems to be “the one.” It’s also about Clare, an 11-year-old girl struggling to maintain a normal life when her mother stops being someone she can count on. In telling these two characters’ eventually intertwining stories, de los Santos uses a shifting narrative technique: Cornelia and Clare alternate chapters, except that Cornelia’s chapters are told in first person, while Clare’s are in limited third. It makes for interesting variety at first, but the chapters are pretty short, and I quickly became fatigued with the constant shifting back and forth.
It’s funny… when I was in elementary school and my favorite books were the Chronicles of Narnia and anything by Beverly Cleary, I disliked first-person narration – what I referred to as “I books” – so much that when browsing in the library for something new to read, I’d put a book back on the shelf immediately upon seeing the word “I” on the first page. That lasted until middle school, when I read “The Outsiders” and S.E. Hinton immediately became my favorite writer – a position she’d hold for years, while I eagerly sought out other “I books” by the likes of Paul Zindel and Judy Blume. When I wrote my first full-length work of fiction (not quite a novel, more like a long short story) at age 12, I borrowed characters from Hinton’s universe – today, it would be called fanfic, but I don’t know if the term existed back then, in the olden days before the Internet. But unlike Hinton, who always stuck to male protagonists, I made my main character/narrator female, because even back then I thought it was important to tell a coming-of-age story from a teen girl’s perspective. However, I digress. Suffice it to say that when I get into a book, whether it’s an “I book” or told in the third person, I like to stick with one POV throughout, and so the alternating pattern in “Love Walked In” didn’t work for me.
It’s a shame, because I enjoyed the characters and would have liked to have settled in longer with each of them. Cornelia’s voice is funny, self-deprecating and down-to-earth, even if she does tend to be a bit too conscious of her own act of storytelling, addressing the reader with defensive comments along the lines of “Am I rambling? Do you want me to get on with it? Well, I will, just bear with me,” too frequently for my taste. And Clare is a wonderful, compelling character, but it seems like her chapters belong in a different story altogether – a more serious, literary one, in which the reader doesn’t get to experience things through her immediate 11-year-old perspective but from a slightly removed third-person vantage point. I noticed a lot of telling-not-showing, with key conversations and events simply summarized instead of demonstrated to the reader through dialogue and action, and I thought de los Santos missed some opportunities to let me, as a reader, draw my own conclusions about the characters’ feelings and motivations. For instance, Cornelia tells us “I was in love,” and other characters observe “Cornelia was in love,” so there’s definitely no confusion, but instead of spelling things out so directly, how about showing how she feels through her words and actions and letting the astute reader recognize the symptoms for what they are?
I realize I’ve spent most of this post talking about the style and not the substance of the novel, but that’s only because the style was so distracting that it kept me from truly being immersed in the story. But I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, “Belong to Me,” which employs a similar technique, to see if I like it better. So don’t give up on me yet, sis!