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Pickle Me This

March 2, 2008

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

It is a curious thing to consider, just what a good book is meant to do. Though anyone who’s ever loved a book, I believe, would know there are a thousand answers. That some books are meant to be enlightening, others amusing, or educational, playful, iconoclastic, challenging, illuminating, inspiring, confirming, terrifying, reassuring, mirrors, windows and the like. For it all depends on the book, of course. And there are some books meant to be curled up in, just like a blanket.

During this past week, Marisa de los Santos’ Belong to Me was that book for me. This past week, as February sunk its long claws in deeper, I looked for apartments, the sky was grey, I lost a mitten, all my trousers were salt-stained, and the temperature approached -30. So it was a joy to be able to turn away from that, to curl up inside this novel who wears springtime on its cover. To be absorbed by a sunny suburb, the ties of family, friendship, love and all its mini-soap operas. To experience the guilty pleasure of a soap opera, but not to have my mind put on autopilot. You see, that I’m tired and weary does not mean I’m undeserving of a good book– one that is well written, employing interesting language, with well-formed characters, and, while not altogether too much, still has the power to get into my head.

Cornelia Brown has just moved to the suburbs, a surprisingly strange and foreign country. Her instincts are all wrong there, she feels out of place, and she’s mystified by how hard friendships are to come by. A particular source of vexation is her neighbour Piper, Queen Bee of the local of Stepfords. Cornelia is soon befriended by waitress Lake Tremain, however, a single mom with mysterious past.

Cornelia’s voice is the core of this novel, wonderfully intimate, insightful and funny. Her first person narration so clearly defines her character, literary allusions and all, utterly engagingly, for we come to understand why she is loved. Piper’s chapters are told in second person, perhaps fittingly for one who knows herself so little, and de los Santos allows sympathy to build for this often vicious character, heartbreakingly so through the death of her friend. And the third central character is Dev, Lake Tremain’s boy-genius son, deciphering his mother’s secret past to discover the truth of his own origins.

As is the nature of any small community, suburbs in particular, these three characters’ stories come to intersect one another in surprising ways. Sometimes not always as surprising as they’re meant to be, and the plot twist here was just a bit much, but plausibility is never really the point of a book that is a blanket: I just wanted to get away for awhile. By late February I’m wanting comfort, warmth and a mini-holiday, and with all of these requirements, Belong to Me delivered.

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