When readers first meet Cornelia Brown, one of three protagonists in Marisa de los Santos's second novel, BELONG TO ME, it seems that her tale will be one of trading an exciting life in the big city for a quiet one in the suburbs. But what unfolds is much more complex and interesting.
Cornelia and her husband Teo have just moved from New York to a sleepy, upper-class Philadelphia suburb, and she’s having a bit of trouble fitting in. She misses the pace, creativity and intellectual stimulation of the city and finds little in common with the other women, wives of professional men, she comes into contact with. She’s particularly put off by her snotty neighbor, Piper Truitt. But when she meets the eccentric Lake, a single mom also new to town, she has hope that a solid friendship is developing.
Piper is a stereotypical affluent WASP ice princess. But, in de los Santos's able hands, she undergoes a radical yet mostly believable transformation. Piper and her husband Kyle are the alpha couple of the community. Piper is a mother of two, overly concerned with propriety and appearance. She is most at ease when caring for her kids and spending time with her best friend Elizabeth. When Elizabeth is diagnosed with cancer, Piper's world begins to crumble, but through the illness, she rebuilds it into one more genuine and compassionate. As all of her energy goes into caring for Elizabeth, she finds herself distanced from Kyle and her previous petty concerns and becoming close with Cornelia, the neighbor she once dismissed. Elizabeth's illness challenges Piper to change and to learn to accept not only other people but her true self as well.
Meanwhile, young Dev, a kind-hearted genius preoccupied with String Theory and poetry, is faced with his own set of challenges. Recently uprooted from his hometown after a disastrous seventh grade year, he finds himself at a new school in a new town and finally feeling happy and comfortable. Still, he wonders why his mother chose this location. Could it have something to do with the father he never knew? With the help of friends Aiden and Lyssa and first girlfriend Clare, he starts to put together the missing pieces of his life that, while exciting, unravels the carefully woven lies his mother has told him all along.
The stories of Cornelia, Piper and Dev intersect in a number of compelling ways, resulting in some good plot developments. Yet, overall, this is a character-driven novel, and it is the inner lives of the three main figures that make it such a page-turner. Cornelia's portions are written in first-person narration while those of Piper and Dev are told in third person. Her shift in perspectives is successful because the tone and pace remain consistent, and each character has a worthwhile and unique point of view. The secondary characters --- Elizabeth, Dev's friends, Teo and Cornelia's brother --- are all given just the right amount of attention, adding to and not distracting from the story.
Readers may be familiar with Cornelia, Clare and Teo from de los Santos’s debut novel, LOVE WALKED IN, but BELONG TO ME stands on its own well. While the connections between some of the characters are a bit too contrived and the emotional transformations are sometimes a bit too neat, the writing is enjoyable enough and the themes of belonging, friendship and love challenged by secrets and change are universal enough to make this a recommendable title.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 11, 2011
Belong to Me