Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: Belong to Me

Title: Belong to Me
Author: Marisa de los Santos
Genre: Literary Fiction
Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: B+

Summary: Cornelia Brown and her husband, Teo, move from NYC to suburban Philadelphia--Teo is a doctor and Cornelia is a well-educated homemaker (sans children and too much home-making inclination). Lake Tremain and her son, Dev, move from California to suburban Philadelphia--Lake is a waitress and Dev is a genius (of the 14-year-old variety). Both Cornelia and Lake's lives tangle together with the formiddable Piper Truitt (who was already living in suburban Philadelphia). The three stories seem unconnected, but they reveal (eventually) that they are very much woven together.

First Line: "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," (Cornelia as narrator).

Summary: That first line of the book is pretty indicative of what you're going to get with reading Belong to Me. It's very literary in the way it's written (just count the number of words in that paragraph/sentence of an opening line). It's pretty clever and intriguing (I know you're wondering, "How in the world is Armand Assante going to play into this story?").

The book is, all things considered, a really solid read. Lots of complex interactions: female friends, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children, exes, this list could go on and on. Yet, all of these interactions are told from a very tight perspective--not a bajillion characters to keep track of. Very well drawn, if you will.

You read the book from three perspectives--Cornelia, Piper, and Dev. And, as with most really good literary works, each narrator is equally engaging. You can crawl far enough inside their persona to understand (to some degree) why they behave the way they do. There are some characters that we never get to hear from that you'd like to peek into further (Teo, Lake, Tom, Toby), but what is written is enough. Sure, you'd overindulge, if you could, but the book is definitely satisfying as is.

The primary problem with the book, in my humble opinion (and hence why it wasn't in the A range) is the pacing around the climax of the book. At the end of chapter 15, page 283, the plot "twist" is revealed. I knew what was going on. However, in a bit of literary self-congratulation, de los Santos doesn't reveal the climax to the characters until page 318, and we don't get the full impact of said climax until page 326 and following.

Now, you might be thinking, "Thirty-five pages to the 'first reveal' and another eight pages to the 'big reveal,' forty-three pages in all, isn't that long to wait." And you're right, it's not exceptionally long, but it was unnecessary. They could have easily shifted some chapters around in there and made the climax escalate at a frenzied pitch to keep you reading. But they didn't. I easily sat the book down at page 284 (as soon as I knew it wasn't going to continue with the climax, I knew I could wait to read more later). And, as I've said on this blog before, having readers be able to easily put your book down is a really bad sign. A bad sign regarding writing or (more likely in this case) editing.

And, you might be thinking, "But one editing issue gets it knocked all the way from an A to a B+? That's kind of harsh." It wasn't just once. It happened a couple of times. She [or her editor] were trying to string us along, but it didn't work. It just bogged things down.

But, to end on a happy note: because this was, by and large, a really great book, let me leave you with this snippet that tickled me (and I read it aloud to my sister because I found it to be so funny). The setting is that Dev and two friends (the female of which is a touch crazy) are in downtown Philadelphia trying to track down Dev's deadbeat dad:

"'We aren't lost,' [said Aiden]. "I just wondered if you all noticed where we are?' He pointed surreptitiously at a large, rainbow-striped flag flying from someone's balcony.

'So what?' asked Dev.

Lyssa glanced at the flag and then said, 'My mom says decorative flags are tacky.'

Aiden shook his head at this, then intoned, in a deep, radio-announcer voice, 'My friends, we are entering the heart of'--he paused dramatically--'the Gayborhood.'...

'Oh,' said Dev, quietly.

'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up,' said Lyssa, turning to Dev, her pale blue eyes round as quarters, her eyelashes weedy and ink black in the noon sunlight. 'Your dad is gay?'...

'I don't know,' [said Dev].

'Oh, you'd totally know,' said Lyssa, tightening her ponytail. 'God, it would suck to have a gay dad.'

'Shut up, Lyssa,' said Aiden.

'Well,' said Lyssa, loftily, 'I'm sorry, but I just don't believe in it.'

'You don't believe in gay people,' snickered Aiden. 'Like believing in them is optional? Like gay people are the Easter bunny?'"

Recommendation: I didn't realize it before reading, but Belong to Me is actually the second book of de los Santos' with Cornelia and Clare as key characters. The first was Love Walked In; therefore, if you enjoyed this one, then you should pick that one up too. (Or vice versa.)

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