Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

The Sea of Tranquility

I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.

I'm not a gusher. Really, I'm not. Even the sappiest books don't make me cry, save two, and I'm not easily swooned. I'm not into bad boys and I can't say that sparkly things make me hot. I'm just not that kinda girl.

Just thought I should point that out because what Katja Millay has done to me is utterly unforgivable and I have half a mind to track her down, shake my fist at her, and tell her so. She has managed to find the heart in this grinch, a heart which was two sizes too small, and turned it into a swooning, aching, puddle of goo.

I have even bullied - 'cause I'm still a grinch at heart - my teen reading group into making The Sea of Tranquility our official book selection, just so I have an excuse to sneak in another read.

So why all the fuss? Alright, let's break it down:

The Characters:
This novel is ripe with beautifully crafted characters. Their voices are all unique, each with their own gripping story to tell. From the banter to the serious, the narration and dialogue are simply exquisite and real and vibrant. These voices are gutting and uplifting. They are hysterical and shocking. Mostly, they are an honest representation of life and every chapter, every scene, perfectly encapsulates the small measures of growth everyone, fictional or real, experiences when putting their lives back together after tragedy. These characters, all of them, play off each other so exceptionally well that reading this novel felt more like watching a movie. There is a realness to them that captures your attention from the very first page and holds tightly to your bones until the last.

The Boy:
In my estimation, there are far too few gooey good boys in Y/A today, or maybe ever. And by "gooey good" I mean often-misunderstood-and-sometimes-caustic-but-squisky-on-the-inside kinds of boys... you know the ones - they'll melt your heart, then break it, only to pick up the pieces and help you reforge it into something magnificent. That's what Josh Bennett does. He's gooey good but never simpy; he's brooding in an honest and aching way; caring and complex and scrupulous. He is thoughtful and mature (most of the time); contemplative and genuine and witty and smart. And when he speaks, it is with purpose and clarity. There are no hidden agendas with Josh Bennett and his capacity to love, despite himself, is astounding. He is, quite simply, beautiful.

The Girl:
Even if you've never experienced what Nastya Kashnikov has, and let's hope to God you haven't, she is such a relatable character. During our formative years we've all struggled to find our identity, to find the places we belong and the people with whom we connect. This is Nastya's journey. Except, when we meet her, her identity has been recently and brutally stripped away, and she struggles with not only finding her new identity but with the wreckage of a life shattered. Her anger and fear are palpable and her charade of a new life speaks to the depths people will often go to shelter themselves from pain. Nastya is in no state of healing. She is raw, though she'd never admit it, and lost and uncertain. Though I've already confessed my adoration of Josh Bennett, it is Nastya Kashnikov who truly stole my heart as she is the personification of every broken person I have ever met. I wanted her happy ending, I needed her to be okay, just as Josh Bennett did, and for the very same reasons. I needed to be reminded that pain and fear are transitory states and that, even though we may never forget the reasons we ache, there is always the possibility of second chances.

The Story:
Truthfully, at the beginning, I wasn't certain what I was getting into with TSoT. About two hours in I was wondering when the lives of our protags were going to collide. It was a subtle build up, as the story focuses on character development, and much of the first half of the novel delves into the lives and struggles of our storytellers. Threads are introduced slowly and methodically, building and weaving together as we get to know Josh and Nastya. This story takes it time, it sucks you in with the strength of its voices, while teasing you with the slow unveiling of the grief, pain and tragedy these characters endure. It's an investment of time, but one you're not even cognizant of making until you're in the midst of some supernova mindfuck and it's too late to turn back.

The story is told in alternating, first person POV, which works really well in this case. It offers the reader a chance to get to know both its protags and, since we've already established that this novel focuses on its characters, we really get inside their heads, sometimes painfully so. The alternating POV isn't always chapter for chapter, it stays with whomever has the most story to tell at that particular time. Katja Millay knows just when to shift the storytelling, finding just the perfect moments to pull us from one mind and dumping us into another. It really is skillfully done and something I've seen butchered more times than I care to recall so I'm impressed she pulled it off so fluidly.

Together, Nastya and Josh are truly tortured souls. But never in the woe is me kind of way. Their reasons are valid, their lives seeming to hang by a tenuous thread, and, as I've mentioned, they are by no means in any stage of healing or rebirth when they meet. They are fractured and uncertain and that's precisely why this story takes so long to tell. Because life is not always about the rebound, it is often about the mire we wade through and the struggle it takes to get out of it. And this is Nastya and Josh's story.

One of my favorite movie lines ever is: "get busy living, or get busy dying" from the Shawshank Redemption. It's a line which popped into my mind over and over as I read this book, because that's truly what it felt like. Two people at a crossroads with a choice to make: step bravely into the unknown, which offers the hope of something better, knowing it is a path littered with the wreakage they must first navigate through; or plod into the darkness, with its sameness and its ability to hide them from painful truths. That's what this book is, an answer to that question. Do you get busy living or get busy dying?

The Ensemble:
Now, just to solidify the awesomesauce of this novel, let me tell you about its ensemble of equally adorable misfits. Drew Leighton, Josh Bennett's bff, who at first appears to be the cookie cutter, vapid jock, stud-muffin found in most Y/A, is anything but - and if you're still saying that when you're done with TSoT I will be forced to bitch slap you. He's smart and vulnerable and, biggest shocker, a total mush head, though sometimes a bit misguided and immature. At first I could not for the life of me wrap my head around his friendship with Josh. It was incongruous and nonsensical but once I finally got it, it was sheer joy. Clay Whitaker was unassuming and loyal and genuine and the more time I got to spend with him, the more I was eager to know, especially once I learned about his connection to Josh. Tierney Lowell, volatile and acerbic, was actually so vulnerable that I wished there were more of her. I was totally bummed that she didn't get more page time.

I loved these characters. Every one. And I loved this book. Every page. And now I love Katja Millay (damn you!), because she brought this story to life and because she created something lovely, something haunting and inspiring. Something worthy of cherishing. She reminds us of the beauty of life and the power of second chances and that love, while it can not fix us, can offer us the inspiration to fix ourselves.

The bottom line: I don't know if my review has done this book justice. I don't know if any review can. It's always so much harder to write about the things you love than the things you hate and I've always wondered why that is. Maybe, like with Josh and Nastya, it's easier to hold on to the bad. But the good feels so much better, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I hope I didn't disappoint.

P.S. Katja Millay eluded to a parallel story in one of her blog posts. So, in case she ever reads this I'd like to say this: first, thank you for leaving The Sea of Tranquility right where it is. I, for one, would like to imagine a happily ever after for Josh and Nastya and if you ruined that, I'd be pissed. Second, if you're even slightly intrigued by the prospect of writing Drew and Tierney's story, let me say that I applaud that idea and support it and will happily plunk down my dollars to read it. Enough said.

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