When Martin Grace enters the hip Philadelphia coffee shop Cornelia Brown manages, her life changes forever. Charming and debonair, the spitting image of Cary Grant, Martin sweeps Cornelia off her feet, but, as it turns out, Martin Grace is more the harbinger of change than change itself.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, eleven-year-old Clare Hobbs must learn to fend for herself after her increasingly unstable mother has a breakdown and disappears. Taking inspiration from famous orphans (Anne Shirley, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, and even Harry Potter) Clare musters the courage to seek out her estranged father. When the two of them show up at Cornelia’s café, Cornelia and Clare form a bond as unlikely as it is deep. Together, they face difficult choices and discover that knowing what you love and why is as real as life gets.
An award-winning poet, Marisa de los Santos currently teaches English at the University of Delaware. Love Walked In is her first novel. Her first collection of poems, From the Bones Out, was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2000. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Southwest Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
When Love Walked In first started to take shape inside my head, I was living in Center City, Philadelphia, and I never considered setting the novel anywhere else. I have tremendous affection for the place. New York is an astonishing city, dazzling, but I’ve always had a soft spot for cities that are smaller, less glamorous, less firmly planted in the culture’s collective imagination. Philadelphia isn’t smug because it can’t afford to be. It’s scrappy, vibrant, a little raggedy, but full of history and unexpected pockets of loveliness. It’s also a very livable, negotiable city, and, while Cornelia may have bigger cities in her future, when Love Walked In begins, Philly just suits her.
Q. There is much reference throughout the novel to Cornelia’s physical appearance and stature. Why was it important to you for Cornelia to be such a physically small person?
I hear this question fairly often, and it’s an interesting one for me to consider because Cornelia’s smallness was a very intuitive decision for me. She just was small; from the beginning, it was something I knew about her. But like most intuitive decisions, when I look back at that one and examine it, I see all kinds of reasons for it. Mostly, I see that Cornelia’s size has had everything to do with who she is when the novel opens. Growing up, Cornelia’s smallness was something she grappled with and worked against. Because her body refused to cut her a break and develop stature, glamour, or curves, she developed those aspects of herself that were developable: her wit, her intelligence, her convictions, her strength of character. It would have been much easier for her to go the cute and helpless route, but she refuses that. She becomes a big person in a small body. Also, I like that she and Clare are the same height. It’s a sort of physical manifestation of the way their personalities rhyme. But I like that they won’t stay the same size; Clare will outgrow Cornelia eventually.
Q. How did all the classic movies you reference inspire this novel?
Cornelia comes by her love of classic movies honestly. I’m a fan, particularly of the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. I think we associate that era with high glamour, but, ultimately, that’s not what draws me to those films. First of all, I love the language: that elegant, rapid-fire, razor-sharp, incredibly funny but incredibly revealing dialogue. You listen to those people talk and understand the real necessity and nobility of humor. The language feels so fresh, and, certainly, I wanted to make language feel fresh in the novel. I didn’t want to foreground language or decorate with it, but I wanted to use it in unexpected ways.
Second of all, I love the women in those old films. The men are glorious, but the women steal every show. Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur. They’re so subtle and sexy and vibrant and wicked-smart. They’re not invulnerable, though. They’re not perfect. They’re capable and strong, but they’re human. I wanted Cornelia to be human in that way, too.
Q. Was it difficult to make the transition from poetry to fiction? Did you always write fiction as well?
Before I wrote Love Walked In, I’d never written any fiction, at least in my adult life. Not a short story. Nothing. So if I’d stopped to think about the transition from poetry to fiction, it probably would have been very difficult. It probably would’ve scared me silly. Luckily, it happened gradually, and I didn’t stop to analyze it. One day, I had a character in my head, a voice, and over time, that voice developed into Cornelia. She was quite fully fleshed out in my head before I had a sense of her story, and then the plot started to form, and then Clare showed up. All of this happened before I wrote a single word, and it took a long time. Then, I started to write down what I’d been thinking about, and there I was, writing a novel.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m working on a second novel, a sort of follow-up to the first. I hesitate to call it a sequel because it’s a very different book. Cornelia is a main character, but she shares time pretty equally with three other main characters, a woman named Piper who is in many ways the anti-Cornelia, a thirteen-year-old spooky-smart boy named Dev, and Dev’s mother, Lake, a woman with a secret. Cornelia is married and living in the suburbs, where she’s a fish out of water, and her life intersects with the lives of these other characters in unexpected ways. If the first book was about finding love, the second book is about what we do once we’ve found it.