“Where does a mistake begin?”
This is the opening line of Amity Gaige’s newest novel, Sea Wife. We know from the very beginning that something terrible has happened. We just don’t know the specifics of what or how. The story is told largely from two perspectives: Juliet in the present and her husband, Michael, in the past through the captain’s log he kept during their sailing year. There are a few different mysteries woven through the plot, but I felt that the story largely centers around what makes a marriage, and what ends one. Sea Wife is a deep, beautifully written novel with enough pace to the plot to maintain investment while also discussing timeless topics in fresh ways.
“Tears or sweat—so many stories end in salt water.”
Michael is determined to take his family on a year-long sailing trip, to get away from modern American life and consumer culture and just live life to the very fullest. Juliet is struggling: as a mother, as a wife, as a doctoral candidate, and a human being. And Michael believes with his whole being that this trip could be exactly what Juliet needs to combat her depression. Juliet acquiesces and, for better or worse, the couple and their two young children embark on the experience of a lifetime.
“Everyone is hard to love, if you do it for long enough.”
So many difficult topics are addressed within this novel. How a difference in political opinion and worldview can put incredible strain on a marriage. How trauma never goes away, no matter how many years you put between it and yourself. How kids are so much more resilient and brave and hardy than we often give them credit for. How just because loving someone becomes difficult doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the struggle. There are no easy answers, and Gaige doesn’t even try to put forth any. Instead, she captures the importance of questioning, and how vital a role said questioning plays in an individual’s mental health and in the longevity of any relationship.
“Because love is tidal; it goes out, it comes in, it goes out.”
The rare inclusions of a third perspective, their daughter Sybil’s, were jarring but sweet. She brought an added innocence to the novel. It’s easy to present a precocious child as selfish or obnoxious or glib, but Gaige fleshes Sybil out just as thoroughly as she does Juliet and Michael. Smart but kind, creative but observant, Sybil ended up being my favorite character, though I loved them all.
“…children grow by inches and the rest of us inch toward the end.”
Things get very meta as the plot progresses and we see Juliet’s interaction with Michael’s logbook. I love the framework of a book within a book, and this was a very different usage of that trope. However, it took me a bit to adjust to the (very abrupt) transitions between perspectives. Until I found the book’s rhythm, each transition was repeated whiplash. This is a case where having access to the audiobook is very helpful, as each perspective is voiced by a different person. I simultaneously read this book via audio and ebook, and that combination made for an incredibly immersive experience.
“Our losses will never be done with us. They have endless patience.”
Gaige did a great job presenting both sides of this political war between spouses. Both arguments were perfectly rational within the minds that housed them, so much so that the opposite party had no room in said mind for the other person’s argument. That’s why they could never understand one another: there was no room for understanding. This vast schism between their worldviews made for a lot of added tension, both in the novel and in the marriage it presented.
“It’s true—history is written by the victors. That’s why we need poets. To sing of the defeats.”
I love what Gaige has to say about poetry specifically and art as a whole through Juliet. These are the passages that resonated the most deeply with me. Juliet’s relationship with poetry, how it served as both solace and accuser, is fascinating. That’s a similar relationship to the one I have with art, specifically music. Art is both a window and a mirror, and Gaige demonstrated that beautifully.
“I think you love your pain. It’s your poetry.”
Sea Wife is insanely well written. The hardest thing I’ve done all week was narrowing down the dozens upon dozens of passages I highlighted into a manageable amount to include in this review. Gaige has a gorgeous way of describing things, both tangible objects and intangible ideas, both nature and human nature. But yet again, this is another in the slew of new releases that seems morally opposed to the use of quotation marks. I can understand it in a way, as we’re getting the story from the minds of those who endured it, but it still throws me off. I don’t want quotation marks to go out of style. I like quotation marks, dang it.
“Fair, what a useless word. A concept that is relevant only in the rare moments when there is no greater danger than unfairness.”
The only other element I want to mention is the abundance of nautical terminology. I know some people have a difficult time connecting to stories that rely on jargon. That’s not this book. While plenty of such terms are present, they in no way hinder a nautically ignorant reader from sinking into the story. However, if you’re not a fan of ships as a setting, this one might not be for you.
“The wind laughed. But the sea and I, we howled.”
I found Sea Wife to be a thoughtful, intriguing, haunting novel with a captivating setting. I’d recommend this book to pretty much any reader, especially those who gravitate towards thoughtful prose and quiet, small-scale stories that act as a microcosm through which to view the world at large.
You can order this book from: Bookshop.org (Support independent bookstores!) | Amazon UK | Amazon US | Audible | Libro.fm (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping)