Tuesday, October 4, 2011: Maximum Shelf: Falling Together

Morrow: Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

Morrow: Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

Morrow: Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Falling Together

Editor's Note

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Marisa de los Santos's Falling Together, which is an October 2011 publication. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and Debra Ginsberg. William Morrow has helped support the issue.


Morrow: Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

Books & Authors

Review: Falling Together

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos (William Morrow, $25.99 hardcover, 9780061670879, October 4, 2011)

Friendship, family, love, loss--common themes in novels, but to capture and stay in our imagination, they need an uncommonly good writer--like Marisa de los Santos (Belong to Me; Love Walked In). In Falling Together, she explores these matters through an intense college friendship that falls apart in the world post-school, and does so with perception, compassion and a delicious wit.

Penelope Calloway, now an author escort, receives an e-mail that stuns her--a message she's been waiting for for over six years: "I need you. Please come to the reunion.... I'm sorry for everything. Love, Cat." Pen thinks, Finally.

Will Wadsworth receives the same email. He's become a famous children's book author, and still thinks about both Cat and Pen. He decides to go to the 10th year reunion--like Pen, Will could never say no to Cat.

The three met the first week of college, when Pen found a bathroom to repair smeared mascara (Beowulf brought her to tears), and also found Cat, lying on the floor having a grand mal seizure. She yelled for help, Will came, and they ended the day with pizza, sitting on the campus lawn. "Late summer life--young and gold-edged--crackled around them." Thus their spectacular friendship formed.

At the reunion, Will and Pen talk and fall into a somewhat easy amity; they mingle, they wonder where Cat is. And they are still wondering the next day, when Cat's irascible husband, Jason shows up, asking them where Cat is. He's the one who sent the e-mails. Cat left him, six weeks after her father died, and Jason wants Will and Pen to help him find her. They agree, a bit apprehensively, and Pen, her daughter, Augusta, Will and Jason become, against all reckoning, a team. Destination: Cebu City, the Philippines.

Catalina Ocampo is from Houston, but her father was Filipino; now she is searching for a piece of herself in his birthplace, and her quest leads both Will and Pen to consider their own father losses and what they have missed in life. Pen realizes she has been waiting, saving herself for something. But for what?

Marisa de los Santos explores the changing nature of love and friendship and grief with discernment and understanding. The triad's friendship is extreme; it had become "an ageless and immovable fact"; they thought that, as they moved into the world, if they couldn't be friends in exactly the same way, everything would fall apart.

This could be a sad story of missed opportunities, but instead it is filled with joy and hope as well as heartbreak. In the scene where growly Jason connects with sparkly Augusta, the possibility of connection absolutely glows.

De los Santos has a delightful sense of humor: Will dated blondes, and Pen noted that he was dating his way through the whole yellow section of the Crayola box. At one point, in frustration, "Will shut his eyes, overcome by nostalgia for the days when a phone receiver was substantial enough to effectively bang against your forehead." And her prose shimmers: the sky was like a nectarine slice in the west; "a magnolia held its tight-closed buds like white candles in green hands."

The three friends fell into a closed system that couldn't be maintained, so they fell apart. How the three fall into their true selves and what that means for each of them is surprising and satisfying as they learn that when the world offers extravagant loveliness, it must be accepted. "The world was big and Pen was in it. The least she could do was pay attention." --Marilyn Dahl

Enjoy This Excerpt from Falling Together

It should have been a nothing moment, slightly funny but evanescent, a moment in a long stream of moments. Instead, for Pen at least, it separated itself, became self-contained and revelatory. Pen and Will looked at each other and smiled the kind of smiles people exchange when they have known each other for a very long time, and maybe it was the exhaustion or the fact of time's having been turned on its head, but Pen had the sensation that, right then, they were two bodies caught in a perfect balance, the forces pulling them together precisely equal to the ones keeping them apart.


Roadtrip Mix for Pen

Music to listen to when reading Falling Together. "Pen turned up the music. In a characteristic combination of thoughtfulness and mockery (and because he was just a guy who liked to make playlists), for the trip, [her brother] Jamie had made her a playlist of the music she had listened to in college. 'The sound track of your youth. Total-body nostalgia immersion,' he'd intoned, dangling the iPod in front of her nose. 'You know you want it.' "


Marisa de los Santos: Self-discovery and Connection

http://media.shelf-awareness.com/theshelf/2011Content/de_los_Santos_1.jpgBefore writing your novels, you studied, wrote and published poetry. How does your poetry and your poetic sense now inform your prose?

What is most obvious--sometimes painfully obvious!--to me is how it has influenced my process. When it comes to the actual writing part of writing a novel, my method is pretty much the same as it was when I wrote poems. I write a sentence and tinker or wrestle with it until it feels right to me, and then I write another sentence and do the same thing. There's a little, magical thrill when you get a sentence just right, but in general, it's a slow and somewhat impractical way to write 400  pages. No matter how often I try, I can't put in placeholders or jump ahead or just get the story out there in a rough form and then go back and fine-tune, even though these tactics make so much sense to me. Another way I feel the influence of poetry is that I am very aware of the words as sounds, apart from their meanings. If a paragraph isn't working, I look first at the music of it--the rhythm, the ways the vowel and consonant sounds are bouncing off each other. I've been known to bonk myself on the forehead and say things like, "Ack! No wonder it's awful! Look at all those short vowels in a row!"

One of the most intriguing relationships you explore in Falling Together is that of friendship formed in college. The novel illustrates beautifully how intense and seemingly unbreakable these bonds can feel at the time they form. Do you think these kinds of friendships can sustain into adulthood?

Not usually, I don't think. Partly because college is a relatively uncluttered place; there's just not much to focus beyond studying and relationships, so these two things get intense, undiluted attention. You leave your first family and get the chance to make a new one out of friends. Also, I think it's just an age of wanting pretty desperately to know people and to be known. Self-discovery and connection are everything, and all those late nights are so ripe for conversation and revelation. But after college, eventually, there are so many other things that both sustain us and demand our attention. And people just change. I think the reason Pen, Will and Cat's friendship falls apart a few years after college ends is that they don't know how to let it change, to let each other change. Will takes Pen to task at one point, and tells her, "We were three people. We weren't a religion." And he's justified in accusing her of elevating their friendship in this way. But she's not the only one who does it. I think when it comes to the relationships that have truly saved us at one point in our lives, a lot of us resist change.

Falling Together also takes a long and careful look at fatherhood; all of the characters in the novel have fathers who are absent for different reasons. Can you explain how this theme developed for you?

Themes always sneak up on me. You know, what's interesting is that until Charlotte points out to Will that he, Pen and Cat have all lost their fathers in some way, I hadn't really looked that fact squarely in the face. It wasn't at all something I had consciously planned ahead of time. In fact, when I first started work on the book, I didn't even know Pen's father had died. What I knew was that I had this character who was very sad. At first, I thought her sadness grew only out of the loss of her friendship, but I was dogged by the thought that, as significant as the loss of Cat and Will was for her, it wasn't enough to account for the depth of her grief. And then one day on the elliptical trainer at the Y, I understood that Pen had been incredibly close to her father and that he had died quite suddenly. Once I knew that, I could really start writing. In retrospect, I can see how the loss of their fathers unifies the characters and also reveals aspects of their personalities we wouldn't otherwise have seen. Even Will, who believes he hates his father, has to figure out who he is without him in his life, and it isn't easy.

How did the mystery at the heart of Falling Together develop for you? Was there ever a point during the writing when you felt the resolution might go another way or did you know the course from the beginning?

I can't start a book until I have a good, strong handle on the characters. I live with them inside my head for a long time, months, before I write anything down. I collect details about them, often seemingly trivial details that, for me, say something essential about who they are. Also, I can't start writing until I know a few basic things about the plot, real bare bones stuff. And all the while, on some level, I accept that what I think I know at the beginning about character and plot may very well be wrong or only very partial. Books have a way of choosing their own shape, and you have to respect that, even if it means scrapping a lot of what you thought you had planned. While I realize that there is one clear mystery going on in the book, I felt like there were many, and maybe the most important one in my mind was: How would Pen make peace with her grief? Or would she at all? Until I was well into the last quarter of the book, the mysteries still felt very mysterious to me. But in the end, one of the best things about writing is the way your own story can surprise you.

A good portion of Falling Together takes place in the Philippines, offering readers a lush, vivid and complex description of the place and its people. Can you tell us about how and why you chose this setting?

I can't tell you how grateful and thrilled I was to be able to write about the Philippines. My dad grew up in Cebu City and lived there until he was about 30, when he came to the U.S. for his medical residency. My sister and I were born here, and it wasn't until I was in my 20s that I traveled to Cebu for the first time. Since then, though, I've been back many times. My parents ended up moving there after my dad retired, so we take the kids every other year, and every time we go, the place becomes a little bit more a part of my internal landscape, the one I carry around with me, my own private home. It's a country of extremes: extreme gorgeousness, rampant blossoming, warm generosity, fruit and bread and fish so delicious you wish you could eat nothing else for the rest of your life, and also extreme poverty, heartbreaking poverty. Neither of the other two books led me to write about the Philippines, but since this one did, I wanted so much to do it justice, to have my language glow and sing and snap it all into being. That's probably not possible, but I loved trying. I hope people read the book and think: "Okay, I have to go there!"

There is a strong sense of optimism present in all of your work. How important is it to you that a novel have a happy ending? Can you define for us what makes an ending happy?

I have always found happiness, in life and in art, to be as potentially interesting and complicated and multilayered as sadness. As a person and writer, I'm inclined toward the upswing ending, not an ending wherein all problems are resolved and everyone gets everything they want, but one that leans hard in the direction of hope. It's probably hardwiring; I am a hopeful person in general. As a reader, I likely have a bias toward this kind of ending, as well, although certainly I love lots of books that could be called tragic. But even in these books, there is character growth. I have trouble with books in which characters are mostly static. And growth is in and of itself a hopeful thing. For instance, I love Henry James, and while most of his books end with the characters not getting what they want, the characters have a clearer sense of who they are and what they love, and that is a beautiful thing to have.


A Recipe from Marisa de los Santos

Puto Maya with Mangoes

Pen eats this for breakfast in the Philippines, as do I--greedily--every time I go there, every chance I get! We call it "sticky rice" and serve it with a mango sliced in half (discard the seed only after you've gnawed all the mango flesh off of it) and eaten, Filipino-style, with a spoon. Most Filipino breakfasts also include a kind of bittersweet chocolate called sikwate, but you can substitute regular hot chocolate. Cebu has the best mangoes in the world, but I have never found them in grocery stores here. Try to get the small, kidney-shaped yellow ones, instead of the larger red and gold ones.

Be sure to use a glutinous variety of rice, like the kind used for sushi. It's important that the grains stick together! I use Kokuho Rose.

2 cups glutinous rice (sweet, sticky rice)
4 cups coconut milk
3½ tsp salt
1 cup sugar (or less, depends on how sweet you like it to be)
2 pieces ginger root cut into approx. 1", sliced

1. Rinse rice and place in a 2-qt pot.
2. Add coconut milk, cover and let it come to a boil. When boiling, add the rest of the ingredients. Stir.
3. Turn heat to a lower setting and let mixture simmer for about 15 minutes or until rice is done. (It will be sticky!)
4. When done, scoop out rice, discarding the ginger root.

Alternate bites of mango and rice and sips of hot chocolate. Heavenly!


Enjoy this Excerpt from Falling Together

Without taking her eyes off her daughter, Pen lowered herself by increments into the chair next to Augusta's bed and thought what she had thought so many times before: How can Cat and Will not know you? For weeks after Augusta was born, Pen had expected them to come, even though, when the three of them parted ways, first Cat leaving, then Will, they had all agreed to make it final, to never get in touch, not years later, not ever.... After that, over and over, for two years, Pen had imagined what she would say to them if she ever saw them again, all the ways she would be angry or indifferent, clever or cool. But from the beginning, from the very first day each of them walked out and for every second since, what she would have said if she were speaking truthfully was this: "Since you left, there's been a you-shaped space beside me, all the time. It never goes away."


Laurie Chittenden: A Bit of Excitement, a Bit of Mystery

Shelf Awareness: How would you classify Marisa's work in terms of genre? Do you think readers have certain expectations of this genre and how does that affect the way you work with Marisa?

Laurie Chittenden: Fellow writers from Harlan Coben to Jennifer Weiner have praised Marisa's novels. While her books have been embraced by reading groups and readers of sophisticated women's fiction, they have broad appeal and can be found in fiction sections.

Do you read Marisa's work in progress or as a whole when the novel is completed, and how does this inform the editorial process?

I've been Marisa's editor since her first novel, Love Walked In, and that book was acquired on a full manuscript. In that case, I knew the beginning, the middle and end when we started working together on that book. Since then, we've worked together on pages, chapters, half a manuscript or more. What remains the same is that by the time Marisa sends work to me, she has polished the language so that the images and observations--the line-by-line--is breath-taking. The poet in her is evident even in draft. It's a great treat for me to watch her stories develop, whether I'm reading work in progress or we are having a conversation about where a book is headed. When you read in progress though, you don't discover what comes next when you turn the page, it can be days or weeks before you know the answer to a cliff-hanger.

Falling Together is a careful exploration of the intricacies of family and friend relationships, but there is also a mystery at its center and a wonderful view into the people and scenery of the Philippines. How did you work with Marisa to keep all these disparate elements in such harmony?

Marisa writes with an amazing emotional precision. Her ability to create fully rounded characters that engage us from the start of a book combined with her exquisite and unique description of home are what have won her so many fans. Long before Marisa sends in pages, and I suspect long before she even starts to type, she begins to get to know her characters. Often when we talk in the early days of a book, she'll drop hints about a character or two so for me, it's like talking with a dear friend who then tells you about a new pal she's met. The Philippines is a very special place for Marisa, and from the start the beauty and the warmth of the people and place were on the page.

What would you most like readers to know about Falling Together?

If you have never read Marisa's novels, Falling Together is a wonderful book to start with. If you've read her books in the past, you are about to meet a new group of friends who you'll find easy to embrace and cheer on.



Enjoy This Excerpt from Falling Together


It was even before she was actually in the ocean, before she was surrounded on every side by streaming, swirling, darting, infinitely varicolored glory, while she was still riding in the snow-white water strider of a boat (delicate outriggers arching over the blue water) that took them from Alona Beach to Balicasag Island that Pen realized it: sometimes there is nothing to do but surrender yourself to wonder. You must stop searching for one, small dark-haired woman in a world of small, dark-haired women. You must stop missing your father. You must stop measuring—over and over--the line between loving and being in love. You must offer yourself, whole, to the cobalt starfish (and the orange one and the pale pink one and the biscuit-colored one with the raised, chocolate-brown Art Deco design) and to the clear, clear water and to the sweep of shining sky and to the silver scattershot of leaping fish (an entire school skipping across the ocean like a stone).


Book Brahmin: Marisa de los Santos

The child of a Filipino father and an Anglo-American mother, Marisa de los Santos was born in Baltimore and grew up in Northern Virginia. She spent many years as a poet before she began, quite suddenly, to hear a voice in her head, which turned out to be that of Cornelia Brown, the protagonist of her first novel, the New York Times bestseller Love Walked In. Now hopelessly addicted to fiction-writing, Marisa went on to write another novel, Belong to Me, also a bestseller. With her latest novel, Falling Together (William Morrow, October 4, 2011), Marisa got the chance to write about the Philippines, which made her very happy. She lives in Wilmington, Del., with her husband, David Teague, and their two children. 

On your nightstand now:

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver; Sleep: A Groundbreaking Guide to the Mysteries, the Problems, and the Solutions by Carlos Shenck; The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson; an advance copy of Heather Barbieri's The Cottage at Glass Beach; a Fall 2011 J.Crew catalog; After the Funeral by Agatha Christie; and Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, whose books I adored as a kid and have read over and over again as an adult.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright, about a family of gifted, interesting kids who live in a big, rambling house in the country. I love all of Elizabeth Enright's books and have quite possibly learned more about writing from her than from any other writer. Her sentences are exquisite and her characters are as alive as any real person I know.

Your top five authors:

E.M. Forster, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, George Eliot, Jane Austen.

Book you've faked reading:

Bleak House. Actually, I faked it twice, once in high school, when I relied heavily on the Cliffs Notes (never tell my children this) and once in college when I skimmed huge sections of it.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel. I worship Haven and this book. I read it once a year, usually more. Everyone knows her memoirs, which are funny and marvelous, but her fiction is even better, smart and witty and grave and gorgeously, gorgeously written.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Kate Christensen's The Great Man. The hardcover cover with the paintbrush and the streak of white paint is brilliant. And so is the book.

Book that changed your life:

To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a crash course in empathy for me. I read it when I was way too young, and then I read it again when I was about 10 or 11, and I can remember the lightning-bolt realization that other people are the centers of their lives just as much as I am the center of mine. That thought blew me away.

Favorite line from a book:

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." --Howards End, E.M. Forster


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