The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this beautiful and emotional contemporary romantic drama. I felt caught up in, and utterly swept away by its power, like a small boat being slowly but inexorably driven by the wind into a storm, an emotional storm that left me washed up and wrung out, but somehow richer as a person for having experienced it. It's beautifully and poetically crafted - every element, every character, all combine and contribute to the artful and emotionally intense world author Millay creates.
So what's up with that "Sea of Tranquility," referenced in the title? "It sounded like this beautiful, peaceful place," MC Nastya (it's a Russian name, "NAH-stee-ya") reflects. "Like where you'd want to go when you die. Quiet and water everywhere. A place that would swallow you up and accept you no matter what." But like so many things in this book, the Sea of Tranquility isn't what it seems. It's only an illusion, concealing the truth that "[i]t's not a sea at all. It's just a big dark shadow on the moon. The whole name is a lie." Sadly, Nastya is as bitter, sullen and sometimes snarky as her analysis of the lunar landscape might suggest. Her caked on makeup, her four-and-a-half-inches-of-insanity stilettos, her so smexy its barely there black attire? Maybe all that is an illusion too, concealing that Nastya's got more issues than the National Geographic, as she so succintly summarizes it. When we meet her, it's just three days before she's to start her senior year at a new school, and her Aunt Margot, with whom she's now living, is explaining Nastya's "unique circumstances" to the principal. It's not clear what those "circumstances" are at this point (read the blurb for clues), and since figuring them out is an enormous part of the emotionally satisfying process of reading The Sea of Tranquility, I won't take that away from you. But what is clear is that Nastya's painstakingly contructed facade of unsubtle "stay away" intimidation is covering a fractured and fragile host of emotional detritus, fear foremost, with deep, deep anger running a close second. Maybe that's why she's willing to let Drew Leighton, a Ken doll clone who's "the kind of good-looking that transforms once self-respecting females into puddles of dumbass," attach himself to her, for social cover. And it's definitely why, she tells herself, she's drawn to Josh Bennett, a boy who is so alone on his regular lunch-time courtyard bench that she wonders if he's a ghost, and that no one goes near him because the bench is haunted. She'd love to be rocking a bubble like he's got, to keep everyone away from her, too. (Kinda weird though that she keep ending up in his space, if she's so damn intent on being alone?)
And so our dramatis personae take the stage. It is hard to share too much of their story, of what happened to Nastya to make her who she has been or will become, because that is the story, and in some ways it is a mystery story, even a crime story, so "le spoilerisme," as we french people call it, would be even worse than usual. But I can share that Nastya is an amazing, complex and real feeling character, with a unique voice of broken bravado. Yes, maybe her persona and her carefully constructed facade are illusions. But unlike the titular celestial sea, she is possessed of depths where silent storms continually rage beneath the surface.
And I can also share that the world Nastya inhabits is a vividly imagined and poetically described one. Yes, it's familiar high school terrain to we YA-ficianados, but it's more nuanced, more chiaroscuro than is typically the case. Those mean girls? Maybe they were nice once, and maybe they can be again, if somebody calls them on it. Those douchey bros? Maybe one will have the grace to regret some of the crap he's pulled. Those throbbing crazy alcohol fueled parties where bad things can happen fast? Uh oh, yep, bad things can still happen fast.
I also loved how this book has major themes, one of which is the power and fragility of the creative impulse and process - how vital and irrepressible it is, and how devastating its loss can be. It's expressed in many contexts, images and examples, and it makes Nastya's loss and devastation all the more poignant for being so continually up in her face. Another major theme is the idea of salvation, of rescue - but it's subtle, never cheesy or obvious, and it's never really clear who is being saved and who is doing the saving. I also want to mention that for me one hallmark of a good book is that you fall in love with at least one of the characters. Here, you can't help but fall in love with so many of them that you feel like Jude Law at a nanny convention. Each of them, obviously Nastya and Josh (I'm gonna be disappointed if I don't see some swoonworthy casting boards about this guy), but also Drew and Tierney, various parents, grandparents, aunts, brothers, sisters, holy crap there are a lot of them! And they are all richly dimensional and again, real feeling.
This is a compelling and satisfying read that will draw you into its world fast, and make you want to stay there for a long time (and fortunately it's substantial enough that you can!) I not only couldn't put it down, towards the end something happened that was so intense that it made me stand up, and I realized when I finished, as the tears began to flow, that I was still on my feet, in a kind of weird unconcious standing ovation for this superb bravura performance by an author so polished and artistically skillful that I really can't believe this is her first book. Thankfully I also really can't believe it will be her last, so there's that to look forward to. Speaking of which, yes, this is a standalone, and I appreciate that. But like I said, there are some awesome side characters (and couples) whose stories are worth imagining. Just in case you don't have anything else to think about, dear Katja!
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