by Kate Clayborn
Publication Date: February 23, 2021
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
A sparkling and tender novel from the acclaimed author of Love Lettering, full of bickering neighbors, surprise reunions, and the mysterious power of love that fans of Christina Lauren, Sarah Hogle, and Emily Henry will adore.
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 . . .
Kate Clayborn’s spectacular Love Lettering was the first book I read in 2020. Now, while the rest of the year didn’t work out so well, I can’t deny that it was an amazing reading year for me, and now Love at First looks like it’s continuing that tradition. I am an absolute sucker for a found family story, and this is an expert exploration of that trope and its power. It’s also got a bit of a Romeo & Juliet feel, and since that’s literally my least favorite Shakespearean play, you can imagine my shock when I realized how much I loved this book.
I loved how the title is such an integral part of the book. I always get a little frisson of delight whenever I find the title of the book in the text, and wow, wow, this book. I initially thought “Love at First” was referring to the “love at first sight” trope. After all, the book starts out with a teenage Will standing in the apartment’s garden and being completely smitten with teenage Nora on the balcony – the initial and most identifiable parallel to Romeo & Juliet. The delicious irony here is that Will, suffering from an overabundance of jock machismo, has so far refused to get glasses, so he can’t actually see the mystery girl he’s entranced by. But the events of that day change Will’s life forever, and possibly seeing his Juliet again isn’t enough to overcome that, even sixteen years later. It’s coming to terms with those events that reveal deeper meanings behind “love at first” for both Will and Nora. I won’t spoil what they are, because getting to that point is an incredible journey, but, oooh, I cried.
“We didn’t have sex. He—he grabbed my hand, and then . . . I don’t know. We stayed like that. For a few seconds.”
Deepa blinked. “You . . . held hands.” She tipped back her head and laughed. “This is the most you story. So then what?”
While they do start out in a bit of an enemies-to-lovers position (Will has inherited an apartment in the building and intends to flip it and use it as a short-term rental, which Nora and the other residents are strongly opposed to), neither are ever particularly cruel to the other. Instead, their battles are more rom-comy – death by casserole overload and backyard poetry readings. Nora, after all, loves the building so much that she’s convinced that all they have to do is show Will how wonderful it is and he’ll reconsider. But the event that shaped Will’s worldview – the slow reveal of which is absolute devastating perfection – occurred there, and it’s going to take a lot more than kittens and Shakespearean sonnets to change his mind. The way their relationship builds, with all the requisite pining and hand flexes and leaning-in-doorways, was exquisite.
“A month later there’d be a “For Sale” sign for Donny’s apartment in the front courtyard with a sticker price that’d start spelling the end for this building that Nonna had made a second life in, this building that had—with a bit of fate and a lot of effort—become a family all its own.”
Nora’s building is an extended family, full of quirky characters, so there’s not only this gorgeous romance, but also the various friendships between the building’s residents. They each interact with each other in distinct ways and felt so real that it was relatively easy for me (who often has trouble with scads of secondary characters blurring together) to keep them separate. My favorite, however, was Dr. Gerald Abraham, Will’s boss at the hospital. I will admit to almost, almost loving him more than the main characters. There’s a whole subplot with him and his relationship with his ex-wife – and Will – that made me cry buckets of happy tears. My biggest pet peeve is that there was very little physical description of the secondary characters. There’s a whole conversation where Nora’s best friend Deepa is using the Zoom camera to carefully apply makeup but there’s not even a line about the color of her eyes or anything. It’s a bit jarring.
Overall, this book absolutely wrecked me in the best possible way. It’s a gorgeous exploration of family, grief and love, with a very powerful message, and I highly recommend it!