Kate Clayborn’s Love at First is one of those books that you immediately feel has wrapped you up in a warm hug, and in which the characters and their story creep gradually and unobtrusively under your skin and wind around your heartstrings. Ms. Clayborn is one of my few go-to contemporary romance authors, and this book demonstrates yet again exactly why that is; this is a beautifully understated but gloriously romantic love story full of poignancy and tenderness featuring fully-rounded, supremely relatable characters with ordinary, everyday lives and ordinary, everyday problems.
We first meet Will Sterling when he’s around fifteen, and his mother has taken him to meet the uncle he never knew existed. He has no idea why they’re there, and while he’s waiting outside the apartment block for his mother, he hears a girl’s laughter coming from somewhere above him. He looks up to the balcony and even though he can’t see her clearly (he’s short sighted and needs glasses) Will is immediately captivated. Something about her – the swishing of her sleek ponytail, her animated gestures, the sound of her voice – calls to him and he stands watching while he can hear his mother and uncle arguing in the background.
Sixteen years later, Will is a dedicated and hard-working ER doctor when he discovers that his uncle Donny has died and left him his apartment. Will doesn’t want it – thinking about the things he’d learned that day so many years ago, or about his long-deceased parents stirs up too many painful, unresolved emotions – but under the terms of the bequest, he can’t sell the place for a year, so he decides instead to fit it out for short-term lets until he can legally dispose of it.
Unlike Will, Eleanora – Nora – Clarke has very fond memories of the apartment building where she spent so much of her childhood, and regards the other (mostly elderly) inhabitants as family. The only child of two archaeologists who spent most of their time away on one dig or another, Nora lived with her grandmother during the summers and has, following Nonna’s recent death, come back to Chicago to live. Moving from San Diego, adjusting to remote working and struggling to cope with grief over her Nonna’s death has led to bouts of interrupted sleep, and now, a few months later, the hour between four and five in the morning has become her ‘Golden Hour’, a time for coffee and quiet reflection before confronting the day. She knows the habits of her neighbours well, so when, on one particular morning, she wakes to hear someone else moving around on one of the balconies, she knows it must be someone new. She ventures outside, and looking down, sees a man standing quietly, his handsome face cast in light and shadow from the glow coming from inside… and feels suddenly that this is someone she should meet.
Will and Nora engage in a short conversation, but they don’t see each other again until a few weeks later, during the meeting of the residents Nora convenes after learning of Will’s plan to let out Donny’s – Will’s – apartment to short term renters. She’s outraged – and the other tenants are worried – at the prospect of a steady stream of strangers coming and going, hating the idea of breaking up their close-knit community – and determines to come up with ways to get Will to change his mind. She thinks if she can get him to see the unique qualities of the building and the people in it, he will fall in love with it (and them) too, and abandon his plan.
For the first part of the book, Nora and Will are at odds, he spending a couple of weeks clearing out and renovating his apartment, she trying to slow him down, put him off and generally make things difficult for him. It’s a bit childish, sure, but for Nora, this is the family unit she’s never really had, and losing that on top of losing her Nonna is just too much to face. And for Will, it’s the place where his life changed forever and he all he wants to do is leave behind the memories of the hurt and disappointment he associates with it.
But even though they want completely different things, neither of them can deny the strong pull of attraction they feel towards one another. The chemistry between them is intense yet understated, and their interactions are awkward and lovely, a mixture of unutterable tenderness and raw vulnerability as they begin to learn about and love each other, slowly helping one another to let go of the things that hurt them and are holding them back. I loved the way the author slowly reveals their truths – to the reader and to each other – showing not only how their pasts have shaped them but also their dawning awareness that those pasts don’t define them and that they can choose another path.
Nora’s neighbours are quirky and wonderfully drawn, as is Will’s uptight but insightful boss, and I loved the found family aspect of the story, the idea that we can choose who to love and surround ourselves with by sharing our hearts and our truest selves.
I had just two minor quibbles, which account for the A- rather than a full-on A. Firstly, I didn’t care for the way Nora treats Will near the end; okay, so it’s a very stressful time but it still felt cold. Also, I’m not a fan of romances where friends or family have to provide a very big nudge to get the protagonists to see what is under their respective noses; I much prefer them to work it out for themselves.
Apart from that though, Love at First is, quite simply, a delightful love story. It’s not flashy or drama-filled; it’s a quiet, heartfelt and deeply emotional tale in which the romance builds slowly and organically, the character development is incredible yet subtle, and the regard and respect the two leads have for one another – even when they’re on opposite sides – infuse every page. I’m sure Kate Clayborn’s many fans will need no urging to pick up this latest release, but if you’ve never read one of her books, Love at First would be a wonderful place to start. Strongly recommended.
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