There’s no place like home. Which might be the problem with Dr. Will Sterling. While reading Kate Clayborn’s Love at First, you get the sense that he’s never actually had anything that fits that title. As a child, he had a house that he lived in with parents who were obsessed with each other and largely indifferent to him. As an adult, he has an apartment that he barely sees in between long hospital shifts. There’s no one he’d consider family. There’s barely anyone he’d consider a friend. He works overtime in the hospital’s emergency room until his co-workers basically kick him out, not realizing that he doesn’t actually have anywhere better to go. And then, suddenly, he has a new . . . well, let’s call it a residence. An inherited apartment from his recently deceased estranged uncle that he’s very, very eager to get rid of but can’t, thanks to the terms of the uncle’s will. And with the apartment comes an added, unspoken inheritance in the form of the colorful neighbors that fill out the small, six-unit apartment building.
Eleanora Clarke—better known as Nora—might be the youngest resident (by far) in the crotchety, close-knit community, but she’s also its fiercest and most determined protector. Her own isolated childhood led her to treasure the place and the memories it holds of her beloved grandmother. When Will shows up with his smile and his charm and his decision to—horror of horrors!—renovate his inheritance and turn it into a short-term rental, she springs into action to combat him. The conflict is immediate, but if you’re expecting typical rom-com over-the-top exploits, then you’d be wrong. Sure, Nora pulls a couple of fast ones to try to get around Will, but then something far sweeter than hijinks ensues.
There’s a lovely, expansive hopefulness to Clayborn’s romance. Pretty much none of its characters have the life they’d imagined for themselves or the one they would have chosen. Everyone, not just the main couple, has experienced their share of grief, from the 80-year-old Lothario on the third floor (he’s very into dating apps) to Will’s direct supervisor at the hospital, a man who might be the most awkwardly endearing boss you hope to never have since Michael Scott from “The Office." But as all of them come together in a variety of ways—involving poetry, lost kittens, towel rods and really good marinara sauce—a sense of beautiful optimism shines through Clayborn’s prose. Love at First will not only make you believe that you can recover from the pain in your past but that you can, if and when you choose, break away from your past entirely and build a new future, surrounded by love and support. Rather than narrowly focus on its main couple, Love at First overflows with a sense of connection and community. While watching Will and Nora fall deeply, endearingly in love, you’ll also fall in love with the world they live in, the community they build and the future they have to look forward to together.