2005_02_lovewalked.jpgLet’s be clear about something – Love Walked In is not a romantic novel, even though it’s all about romance. And even the true love triumphs. And even if it makes some of its sappier readers cry. Love Walked In is as much about romance as life itself is. Which is a good recommendation for a novel. Yes, it starts with the perfect man walking through the door, just like in the movies. But a couple other people walk through the same door, and unlike the movie, the story doesn’t end where love starts.

Marisa de los Santos gives us Cornelia Brown and Clare Hobbes, the twin hurricane-force personalities around which she crafts her novel. Cornelia is a café owner, Clare is a scared young girl with parents who, for two very different reasons, cannot take care of her. Cornelia meets the man of her very film-noir-influenced dreams, and Clare meets Cornelia. And in the mine field of two months, they change each others’ lives.

The book itself, the shaping of the two characters, feels a little rudderless until they meet. I saw the make-believe world that de los Santos was creating for each of them – how both Clare and Cornelia are looking at their lives through a veil of fantasy – and I was anxious for that veil to blow over. If I have any criticism for de los Santos’ beautiful story, it’s this. When Clare and Cornelia become a force together, I was left wishing they’d met earlier.

Critics of the book might accuse it of fanciful adoration for perfect characters. I found myself wondering several times while reading it if de los Santos had really met such angelic, golden souls in her life, thus making it easy for her to write them down. A lot of authors will shy away from portraying true, consistent goodness in their characters – cynicism and faults create a richer tapestry, perhaps, for readers to identify with. But there’s something genuine in her story, something about the confluence between the difficulty and tragedy of the events and the way her characters deal with them. Perhaps it’s not so much that these creations are always this good and pure, but rather that they shine when the going gets tough.

That said, even her more flawed characters are a joy. Clare’s hapless father Martin, who’s perfect in every way except where it counts – as a father – becomes more of an in-depth, important character when it becomes clear that he’s not just Cary Grant. Clare’s mother, the beautiful and unraveling Viviana, is largely physically absent but the force of Clare’s heartbreak and longing keeps her mother’s personality in the room at every moment.

Even the characters we only spend a few dozen pages getting to know, it’s apparent how much de los Santos has invested in shaping their motivations and desires. Cornelia’s mother and father are a good example – they’re parents, first and foremost, committed to their children but also to the life they’ve created together.

And most of all, Cornelia and Clare are heartbreaking, moving, strong and independent – they’re everything that Cornelia admires in the romantic heroines from her beloved black-and-white movies. Without spoiling the plot, the bond they form and the pressures they’re subjected to is the stuff that life is made of. If the beginning suffers from a slow build-up, the end tumbles out of Cornelia and Clare almost too quickly for the emotional roller-coaster it takes you through. De los Santos lets the defining moments unroll as quickly as they do in life, and I spent ten minutes after the last page was turned thinking about what had just happened.

The book is so emotionally satisfying, cathartic, and the characters so endearing – you almost forget the novel starts with the perfect man walking right through the door, just like the movies. That’s just the beginning of happily ever after.