Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos
William Morrow and Company, 358 pages
What would you do if an old friend needed you, but it meant turning your new life upside down? Pen, Will, and Cat met during the first week of their first year of college and struck up a remarkable friendship, one that sustained them and shaped them for years – until it ended abruptly, and they went their separate ways. Now, six years later, Pen is the single mother of a five-year-old girl, living with her older brother in Philadelphia and trying to make peace with the sudden death of her father. Even though she feels deserted by Will and Cat, she has never stopped wanting them back in her life, so when she receives an email from a desperate-sounding Cat asking her to meet her at their upcoming college reunion, Pen goes. What happens there sends past and present colliding and sends Pen and her friends on a journey across the world, a journey that will change everything.
I’ve always dubbed March as a special month because of my birthday, and I take advantage of that by meeting up with as many people that I can, especially those that I haven’t seen in a while. It’s always the best excuse IMHO: “It’s my birthday, let’s meet up!” Of course, I often ended up treating the people to coffee, dessert or sometimes even dinner because of that fact, but I never really minded that. In the past month alone, I’ve been out almost every weekend and two to three times on week nights to meet up with my barkada (my closest friends), college roommates, thesis mates, book club friends, church community friends — old friends, new friends, people from almost all stages of my life, I took the time to meet them this month. Sometimes I end up traveling farther than I want to, staying out and losing sleep and being so exhausted that I don’t have time to read (or blog), but I think all of those times were worth it.
This is one of the reasons why I chose Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos as my birthday read. Pen, Cat and Will met in college, and have been the best of friends ever since. Their friendship was so strong that even their romantic relationships took a back seat from their friendship, making them an almost impenetrable circle. But that was the past, and it’s been six years since Pen has seen Cat and Will after they walked out of her life. She never stopped missing them, even if they had missed major milestones in her life such as the birth of her daughter, Augusta, or the death of her father. When Pen and Will receive an email from Cat asking them to meet at their college reunion, they couldn’t refuse. But when they were faced with the unexpected at the reunion, Pen and Will set off to find their missing friend all across the world in a journey that really changed everything for them.
I love Marisa de los Santos. I can’t help but swoon over the way she writes — there’s a certain beauty and elegance in her writing that just makes everything…well, fall together for me. Falling Together is a pretty slow book, one that builds up slowly and flashes back on a lot of memories to tie up the numerous strings spread out around Pen, Will and Cat. Her characters come off feeling like they are also your friends and not just friends with each other, like you’re a part of their circle. Pen is reminiscent of Cornelia in Love Walked In and Belong to Me with her observations and her small eccentricities, although I think I would choose to be with Cornelia over her because I find her more of a darling than Pen. Cat is sufficiently made into a mystery, and it made me wonder what her motivations were in doing what she did. Will is almost like Teo Sandoval in Marisa’s first two books, but also not quite. Maybe the half-Filipino aspect of Teo made him more attractive to me than Will. Sometimes it feels like these characters are a little too whimsical, or maybe a little too different, or maybe even a little too perfect sounding, but Marisa includes little quirks that make them less of those a-little-too’s.
Speaking of Filipino, one of the main reasons why I was so excited to read this book was because a part of it was set in the Philippines. Marisa de los Santos has Filipino roots and I can’t help but feel so proud about how she described the Philippines and the Filipinos in this book. Here’s an example:
Maybe it was the food or the muted light or the ceiling fan’s slow, hypnotic paddling of the air or maybe it was simply that every journey — and Pen had come to see herself as a person distinctly on a journey [...] — has its land of the lotus eaters, its drowsy slowdown in momentum. There would be time to winnow out the reasons later, but as she sat in the living room of the house in which Cat’s father had grown up, surrounded by someone else’s family — Cat’s family, the one she had flown across the world to find — with a plate of food on a tray in front of her, all Pen knew was that she wanted, with her heart, to become a part of the place, to unpack her bags, hunker down, and stay. (p. 284)
And something about the food:
But there was nothing “nothing special” about it: great piled tangles of noodles rife with bits of vegetables, meat and shrimp; a concoction of eggplant, okra, green beans, squash and bitter melon called pinakbet; banana blossom salad; whole fish, crispy and gleaming with sauce; thin egg rolls called lumpia that Pen could have eaten like popcorn; and, glory of glories, down the center of its own special table, a roasted suckling pig, burnt orange, glistening, dizzyingly fragrant. Pen had a momentary qualm at seeing it whole … but once dismantled, the sublime combination of hard, crackly skin and nearly white, meltingly tender meat caused such rapture in her mouth that she gave hearty thanks to God that she was not a vegetarian. (p. 286-287)
That last paragraph made me hungry.
The second time, more prepared, she stayed long enough to understand that the coral reef off Balicasag Island packed more gorgeousness per square centimeter than any other place she had ever been. At the same time that it was exactly like something she had seen on a nature show, it was like nothing she had seen on a nature show because everything — from the imperious butterfly fish trailing their scarves to the brown undulating ribbons that Pen assumed were eels (but might not have been; it frustrated her not to know) to the neon blue coruscations, so penny-small ad quick that they might have been tricks of light — each thing, every individual scrap of embodied beauty, was palpably, unmistakably, alive.
So were Pen and Augusta, alive and in the thick of it. Pen had expected to look down and see fish, and she did, but when she looked to her side, there they were, too, suspended next to her face or flowing by in iridescent streams, and, when Will swam over to take Augusta to see an anemone clownfish and Pen dove downward, the fish were above her as well. (p. 303)
I’m not being biased here, but that last paragraph is absolutely true. I almost squealed with delight when I found out where exactly they were heading in the Philippines because I was just there a month ago. So much beauty, and it’s just one island. :)
A word of warning, though — if you’re expecting them to head to the Philippines early on, well…they won’t. I had to adjust my expectations with that because I thought that the characters would spend a longer time in my home country but the travel happened at the last third of the book. But even so I’m not really complaining, and it’s not really a wild goose chase for their friend all across the world. When I got to the end, I felt like even if I was made to wait for the part I wanted to read the most, the timing was pretty right and I was so invested in the characters and the story that I want them to find their answers in the place I called home.
I was perfectly, perfectly charmed with this book. Again, I may be pretty biased about it because so far, I’ve loved every book that Marisa de los Santos wrote. Even if I can’t relate to it much (by that I mean nothing like that has ever really happened in my life), there’s something in her books that makes me feel that she wrote it just for me — or someone like me who craves for this kind of life fiction. For this kind of story that talks about love and friendship and family and the ties that bind, and all of those things falling together in one complicated and beautiful mess.
I’m not sure if Falling Together is for everyone, but if you’ve ever read and liked Marisa de los Santos’ other books, then you will probably like this. Just how much is another thing, but as far as I am concerned, Falling Together is the perfect birthday read. And I am definitely keeping this one on my shelf. :)
My copy: trade paperback, bought from Bestsellers