Marisa de los Santos
Belong to Me
First published in: 2008
This edition: William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2008
Cover design by James L. Iacobelli; Cover photography by Duane Rieder (Getty Images)
Love Walked In (R&R 055), the first novel by Marisa de los Santos, is one of those books you can savor; lovely, romantic storytelling and warm characters have made that book into a perfect winter read. I adore Marisa de los Santos for what she tries to accomplish in her writing; Love Walked In made me feel like I was wrapped in a warm blanket, utterly comfortable.
I saved Belong to Me, the sequel, especially because of that feeling; I wanted to read it at the right time. Savor it, too. I had high hopes for Belong to Me. Too high, perhaps.
Cornelia and Teo move from the hustle and bustle of the city… to the suburbs. Cornelia wants to start a family now and can't escape the strong urge to move to what she couldn't wait to get away from when growing up: the American ideal of suburban life, where tending one's lawn and gossiping about the new neighbours are the highlights of one's existence. Quite an adjustment for a city girl. Luckily, she has Teo with her: best friend and husband. They're in this together.
Meeting new arrival Lake helps Cornelia to feel less awkward in her new surroundings; Lake is elusive, but otherwise warm and funny. She shares Cornelia's taste in food and movies, and works hard to take care of her brilliant (and polite) thirteen year-old son named Dev.
Soon after the move, Cornelia also meets Piper. Piper is judgmental, perfect from tip to toe, and the big kahuna in the neighbourhood. Piper pretty sums up everything Cornelia dislikes about her move.
However, both Lake and Piper are not who they appear to be, forcing Cornelia to reassess what matters to her most when it comes to friendship and family.
Friendship and family, that's what Belong to Me is about; via three narrators (Cornelia, Piper and Dev) Marisa de los Santos explores how these relationships with other people test our love, our strength and our character. She understands her characters and the bonds they share. Cornelia and Piper especially. Cornelia is still one of the warmest characters I've ever encountered in literature, as she remains the genuine and good-natured character she was in the first novel, while not being too perfect. I loved Piper as well; she is very human, very flawed, and completely understandable.
On the one hand, I'm glad De los Santos decided to change Cornelia's surroundings and thus, the people surrounding her. Because of this, the book is a continuation rather than a sequel; there's new material. It's not more of the same in that regard.
On the other hand I wish it was more of the same regarding atmosphere. Love Walked In was lovely in a sweet, but natural way. It quickly seems as though De los Santos is trying too hard to get that loveliness across again for Belong to Me; there's overkill at times.
Events in her plot are a little too convenient, connections between storylines too easily formed and explained. I'm not happy with the resolution of one of the major storylines, because it's too easy, too romantic. I'm sorry to say this (I hate that I find fault with this book because I wanted to love it), but Belong to Me is contrived. It pains me a lot to use that word, but that is how I feel.
An example of the overly romantic aspect of this book are Dev's chapters, which read like scripts of Dawson's Creek, where fifteen year-olds, using language suitable for college professors, discuss their deeply serious feelings for [insert whomever you shipped Dawson with at the time – I always though the guy was better off single… andJoeybetteroffwithPacey]. Dev's chapters are similar, in that they are too mature and too 'profoundly romantic' when describing how he feels about a girl. Having an incredibly high IQ does not a mature child with mature romantic feelings make. Honestly, as a 27 year-old woman, I don't really care to hear about that intense, committed love (of the kind people who get married should feel) from a barely pubescent thirteen year-old boy.
I grew incredibly tired of De los Santos's recurrent use of the rather idyllic phrase "belong to me" or any variation thereof in random dialog about love. No one really says, "He belonged to her" when trying to convey how much, how truthfully and wholly "he loved her, and she loved him back". Except maybe a stalker. It's a cute title for a book about family, friendship and love, but it's not cute to force 'belong to me' on readers in dialog, using it as a trademark catchphrase. ("That's hot!")
Finally, Suburbia has been quite stereotyped, but that I could live with. I've heard complaints about the fact that apart from Lake and Dev, the characters in this book have it financially easy, but why shouldn't they? It's a misconception to assume that people who are wealthy don't have problems worth building a story around (without it turning into Desperate Housewives). The people in Belong to Me have their struggles, and I did care about them. (Although the book was sometimes full with subplots and people that had little importance to or impact on the book as a whole, such as Toby/Miranda.)
I did enjoy the book. Of course I did. Belong to Me is sensitive, its emotional impact balanced. The reader witnesses joyful moments as well as very, very sad ones (one of the minor characters in this book is losing a battle with cancer). Altogether though, the book is feel-good material. And there's no doubt about De los Santos' skill as a writer: she's a poet, and it shows. Through her writing she comes across as the sweetest woman, and I will keep reading her work. But Belong to Me doesn't have that spark which Love Walked in did have. It tries so hard, but it's not as charming. Not by a long shot.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond