I have a theory that all good books fall into one of two categories. Some are good like Oreos or Amanda Bynes movies: They probably won’t win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon, but they’re compelling and comforting and impossible to put down. Others are good like quinoa and Oscar-winning documentaries: They might be a little bit less accessible, but they offer something real and sustaining, and they change the way you move through the world. And then there are the rare, best books that can do both, making you a better person in painless, wildly entertaining ways. That’s Marisa de los Santos’s gift. Her books are consummate page-turners, imbued with all the mystery twists and will-they-or-won’t-they tension of a beach read, but they’re also beautifully crafted, deeply felt and consistently life-affirming. While de los Santos’s latest novel, “I’ll Be Your Blue Sky,” might not shine quite as bright as those that came before it, it still has that signature cocktail of wit and wonder that makes de los Santos great.
“I’ll Be Your Blue Sky” revisits the characters of de los Santos’s earlier novels, “Love Walked In” and “Belong to Me,” a few years down the road. Clare Hobbes is all grown up and about to marry Zach, a man who is, “So generally, generically marriageable it was almost funny.” Zach is smart, handsome and determined to be a good person despite his troubled past, but Clare can’t shake the feeling that their relationship isn’t quite right. On her wedding day, she serendipitously meets Edith Herron, an old woman who gives her the courage to follow her instincts and break off the engagement. Weeks later, Clare discovers that Edith has died and left her a New England beach house, a safe haven where Clare can pick up the pieces of her broken heart. But everything at Blue Sky House isn’t what it seems, and Clare and her childhood friend Dev set out on an adventure to unveil the mysteries of Edith’s past.
It would be easy to pigeonhole this book into the ill-defined and commonly maligned category of “women’s fiction,” where so many good stories go to die. Ignoring for the moment the larger problem of how our society values content aimed at women, “I’ll Be Your Blue Sky” does conform to some of the clichés of the genre. It’s clear, within the first few chapters, who Clare will end up with (which points to another cliché — the idea that the heroine has to end up with anyone at all). The female relationships are lovely and supportive and aspirational, but they struggle to pass the Bechdel test. The story is interested in love — its complexities and paradoxes and purities — more than anything else, at the expense of hard-hitting social criticism or intellectual theorizing.
But within that “women’s fiction” framework, de los Santos works magic. She’s a sharp observer of the details, “All the small, scattered pieces of the precious and luminous ordinary,” and as a result her world and its characters buzz with life and authenticity. If the relationship-centric subject matter seems cliché, it’s executed with such clear-eyed sensitivity as to be completely irresistible, even to a card-carrying cynic. De los Santos writes fiction like a poet, every word lovingly chosen, and in her capable hands even the simplest things sparkle.
Rather than “women’s fiction,” it might be more accurate to categorize this book as magical realism. The parameters of Clare and Edith’s world are certainly different than our own: No mystery is unsolvable, no coincidence is impossible and happy endings are guaranteed. But does it really matter if this fantasy world she creates, where the people are all a degree better than we know ourselves to be, isn’t as realistic as realistic fiction would like? It’s still delightful, clever and emotionally resonant in a way that continues to echo long after the final page. I’ve had enough of reality. Bring me more magic, please.