In Love At First, Kate Clayborn penned a perfect romance. How did she manage to keep me engrossed in a novel where nothing happens? Tension and conflict dissipate (the heroine’s feud is silly and it is to her credit she sees it as such). Instead, Clayborn lets her romance stand on characterization, setting, scene, and mood. There has also been an authorial decision on Clayborn’s part that I think has made for her best book yet: she abandoned her previous books’ first-person narration for third. This adds depth and maturity to the writing and removes her reliance on her characters’ first-person voices to provide it, which they don’t. And can’t, given the first-person dependence on personality. As I said, not much happens; here’s the blurb to start us off on the glorious details:
Sixteen years ago, a teenaged Will Sterling saw—or rather, heard—the girl of his dreams. Standing beneath an apartment building balcony, he shared a perfect moment with a lovely, warm-voiced stranger. It’s a memory that’s never faded, though he’s put so much of his past behind him. Now an unexpected inheritance has brought Will back to that same address, where he plans to offload his new property and get back to his regular life as an overworked doctor. Instead, he encounters a woman, two balconies above, who’s uncannily familiar . . . No matter how surprised Nora Clarke is by her reaction to handsome, curious Will, or the whispered pre-dawn conversations they share, she won’t let his plans ruin her quirky, close-knit building. Bound by her loyalty to her adored grandmother, she sets out to foil his efforts with a little light sabotage. But beneath the surface of their feud is an undeniable connection. A balcony, a star-crossed couple, a fateful meeting—maybe it’s the kind of story that can’t work out in the end. Or maybe, it’s the perfect second chance . . .
When we meet Will, it’s as the 15-year-old who “heard” the girl of his dreams. He didn’t see her, as he stands waiting for his mother beneath that balcony, because the vanity of a 15-year-old HS baseball star prevented him from getting eye-glasses. The idea of sight and “seeing clearly” as a metaphor carry Will through to when we meet him in the present-day. The reasons he stood beneath that balcony are painful. Will’s mother drove them to Chicago to ask her brother, Donny, an uncle Will didn’t know he had, to take her son. We witness an awkward, silent, painful meeting and Donny’s refusal to take in his nephew.
Will and his mother return to his dying father. Will metaphorically sees his family’s situation clearly, “scales” have fallen from his eyes: desperate for help, his engrossed-in-each-other parents are trying to spend their last few months together minus Will. He dons prescription lenses and sets about fixing, helping, and growing up. His father dies; his mother follows and, before he’s twenty, he’s orphaned. Will scrapes and struggles to become a doctor and, in the present-day, works in a Chicago hospital ER when a lawyer contacts him about his uncle’s inheritance. With the memory of Donny’s rejection, Will decides to renovate the apartment and pay off his student loans by putting it on the short-term rental market. What he doesn’t count on is meeting the now-adult girl of his dreams, or her resolve to foil any changes to the apartment building. Will pulls one way and Nora tugs in the opposite: he makes changes and she resists, gently and creatively, but she resists.
Will’s denial of the past, his razor-sharp focus on the present and what he can do with it make him sound cold. To Clayborn’s credit, she does something both interesting and clever: she creates, in Will, a warm, gentle, loving, reserved man. A sad, lonely, abandoned boy who decides, without guidance or care, that he will grow himself up. He’s lovely and distant and handsome. One of my favourite parts to Nora’s foiling of Will’s short-term-rental plans is to invite the apartment building denizens and, well, the entire neighbourhood, to a backyard poetry reading, ostensibly, as she tells Will, a monthly event. When he attends, she hands him a scroll with a poem that he’s to deliver to the audience. We expect humiliation, Will expects it, but Nora’s “gotcha” strategy is as gentle and loving as Will himself: she hands him a Shakespeare sonnet, playing on his first name (and Clayborn’s homage to Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scenes). Will reads the Bard’s echoes of loss, love, and mortality, but he doesn’t quite understand it; he doesn’t see it … until much later, when he realizes he’s in love with Nora, when the poem holds the clues to her heart.
If Will sees change as inevitable and its admittance an integral part of being an adult, then Nora’s resistance to it is embedded in grief and love. Like Will (they have more in common than their enemies-to-lovers narrative lets on), Nora was the child of parents engrossed more in their work and each other than her. Her summers with her grandmother, “Nonna”, in this apartment, were the only time Nora was the sole focus of someone’s love and attention. She clings to her memory and the purity of that time by protecting this building and its dwellers.
That brings me to what makes Clayborn’s romance uniquely lovely: how the secondary characters bolster the romance. Nora’s neighbours are her found family: she protects them and the community they’ve built. They’re funny, charmingly elderly, sometimes fragile and often way sneakier and savvier about what Nora and Will need than Nora and Will realize. Will is a solitary, lonely man, but he shares that loneliness with his superior at the hospital, the diminutive monosyllabic monomaniac Dr. Gerald Abraham, exacting and blunt; bedside manner, nil. But he’s a great doctor and, while his manner may be abrupt, his heart beats with love. As we learn, Dr. Abraham is trying to win back his ex-wife, the irrepressible short-term rental expert, Sally. At first it doesn’t look like Will and Gerald have a capacity for friendship: their respective corners are abandoned when they monosyllabically give each other how-to-win-your-woman advice: funny and sad, sometimes pathetic, always heartfelt. When the secondary characters are joined by some “accidental” kittens in Will’s attempt at renovating Donny’s apartment, Will and Nora, the cast of apartment characters, Gerald and Sally, come together in a perfect meow of closeness.
So what do we have in Love At First? Will and Nora, hurt, lonely, temporary lovers with hearts full of love for each other, some demonic kittens, and their found families. Unaware, pure softies, Nora and Will. Secondary characters so rich, each and every one comes alive. Scene shifts that grow relationships: I especially loved the one date Will takes Nora to at the Garfield Park Conservatory. The binder? Clayborn’s beautiful, evocative prose, made stronger by her choice to shift to third-person narration. I will leave you with a beaut of parallel structure. Clayborn’s novel opens with 15-year-old Will trying to see through his myopia to the girl on the balcony above him. When we meet Nora and Will 16 years later, it’s Nora who tries to see, in the pre-dawn barely-light, the man on the balcony below her:
She saw him first as a dark outline, limned by the lights left on in the apartment, her perspective from above him giving her only an impression of his body — hands gripping the railing that jutted out slightly farther than her own; long arms spread wide, triangles of empty space between them and the lean waist that fanned out into a broad, curving back; head bowed low between the tense set of his shoulders. It was like looking at a sculpture, a piece of art, something that took all of your attention. Something that insisted you stay right in the moment you were in, something that told you to memorize what you were seeing. She could’ve looked and looked. Until the sun came up. Until the golden hour was over for real. But then, it hit her. This was not the posture of a property man who needed a Powerpoint presentation. This curved-back, bowed-head balcony lean saw the posture of a man who was … grieving?
And this, my friends, is the mere start of a near-perfect romance. Miss Austen agrees, in Kate Clayborn’s Love At First, we find “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Kate Clayborn’s Love At First is published by Kensington Books. It was released in February and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley, from Kensington Books, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.