Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Sea of Tranquility


Title: Sea of Tranquility
Author: Katja Millay
Release Date: 2013
Genre: romance, coming of age, YA fiction
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: YA fiction
Age Group: 18+

Nastya is dead. Or so she says. She continually refers to herself as the girl who died. We meet her at the beginning of her senior year at a school she has never attended before. She lives with her aunt even though her family is alive and well in a different city. She's that problem student who doesn't care, doesn't socialize, and dresses like a slut. She's not destructive or violent, but still.
And she doesn't talk. No, she actually doesn't talk. Nastya has not spoken to anyone in over two years and it looks like she doesn't intend to start any time soon.
What Nastya does do is run. Every day, she runs until her body can't take it anymore. One night, having puked up the contents of her stomach after a long run, she comes across a curious garage. She approaches to find a boy from her school. He's a woodworker, according to his tools and materials.
But it isn't Josh's woodworking that captures Nastya's attention. It's the fact that everyone in school just leaves him alone. That's what she wants. So, she decides to watch him and figure out how he does it.
But you can't just watch, as Nastya and Josh eventually find out. Sooner or later, someone breaks the awkward silence with an awkward question which turns into an awkward one-sided conversation.
And then one day, that one-sided conversation suddenly becomes two-sided, and horrible secrets come out.

Word of Warning
  •  We have the stock characters of high school. The jerk, the nerds, the angry ex-girlfriend, the player, and so on. This in itself isn't bad, but some of these roles (like player) are.
  • Violence and graphic injuries. A character is beaten near death and details are not spared for the reader.
  • Serious language issues. Teens swear. A lot.
  • Teens refuse to listen to adult guidance, when they really really should.
  • Minors drinking and becoming drunk. Also, use of drugs by minors (though any use of drugs would be bad).
  • Teen sexual intimacy. For the most part, we're merely aware of its existence but are able to avoid any sort of descriptions. However, there is one poetically graphic scene. By "poetically graphic" I mean no specific biological terms are used, but there is no question as to what is going on.
  • Hints of depression. The main character may very well be depressed, as some of the others may be as well. While none of the characters consider suicide, it is mentioned that a character did commit suicide. This character is a minor character who accidentally spurs some of the biggest events in the book, but the suicide happens before this book starts. Basically, the suicidal teen's world is separate from the book's world except for one bridging character. I apologize if this is too cryptic, I am trying to avoid giving away the story but still warn you of the contents.
  • Attempted murder. I will assure you that none of the characters proposed as main characters does this.
  • Death. One character in particular is surrounded by death, with this character's entirely family being dead before this character is a legal adult. This is emotionally very hurtful, as I'm sure you can imagine.
  • Attempted rape. Not successful, but still a disgusting and disturbing and horrible scene.

My Thoughts
And if you're not judging me at this point for giving this book a rating of five stars, I am a little worried. Nevertheless, let me explain.
I came across this book by accident, and the biggest problems (sexual content) did not show up until I was greatly invested in the characters' journeys. Now, that doesn't make reading it ok, but the way the objectionable content was dealt with is honestly beautiful, especially for YA fiction. I think my favorite scene is after two characters have sex. They both realize they've ruined the beautiful relationship they had by doing such a thing before marriage. The "before marriage" part isn't explicitly stated, but is implied. They're heartbroken and have to figure out how to rebuild a relationship with this white elephant in the room.
Now even that isn't enough to read the book. Thankfully, the things that are bad are treated as bad. Still, this book is a beautiful study of humanity. Nastya starts out as barely human and becomes human through her actions. Objectionable content is faced head on by characters and author and hashed out as best they can before coming to the conclusion that there is an answer, but it is out of reach of the characters (perhaps because they have no religious beliefs to stand on?).

And the whole thing is an interesting journey from the uncomfortable gritty aspects of life, progressing to beauty even when surrounded by dirt.

Do I think everyone should read this? Absolutely not. I myself would not normally read something like this. But do I think the book has redeeming qualities? For sure. And way more redeeming qualities than the average YA novel. In fact, it was far too deep of a study on humanity for me to feel comfortable calling it YA fiction. There was just something more to it that I can't explain.

Below is a more extensive description written for an education course of why the book might be acceptable for select audiences in case you are curious to read more.

In Defense of The Sea of Tranquility: I am going to face this head on. This book has problems—a lot of problems. It deals with attempted murder, death, attempted rape, drugs, illegal drinking, suicide, violence, questionable language, and teens engaging in sexual intimacy. Honestly, when I read the book I was shocked.
But not because of the things I was reading. I was shocked because of how they were dealt with. It is how they were dealt with that prompts me to teach this book at all. It is a fascinating study in humanity, and humanity is dirty and gritty and beautiful. That is what this book says. Dangerous actions (illegal drinking, doing drugs) are not glorified; they are a reality the characters must deal with, often in unpleasant ways. Death is carefully addressed, and the character who has lost everyone is forced to learn to live again. The scene in which a young man at a party attempts to rape Nastya is horrible—and that is what rape is. Her friends dash to her side and think no less of her. In fact, they are forced to convince her to think no less of herself for being nearly raped. Josh and a girl (not Nastya) have a relationship solely based on sex, but Josh slowly comes to realize this is not good nor is it what he should be taking, and giving, to another human being. He does not condemn the sex, he condemns the lack of anything else. When Nastya and Josh engage in sexual intimacy, Josh has already reflected that it will change things forever. Nastya reveals, after the act, that it has changed things and she has ruined the beautiful thing they had.
The book is full of problems. I know that, and I would never teach it to an audience any younger than those in eleventh grade because I believe it takes maturity and a certain worldly knowledge to properly encounter a book like this. This book deserves studying not just because of the skillful way it was written, but because of the considerate and real way the problems are dealt with. They are not glorified, nor are they condemned. The characters find themselves in uncomfortable situations in which they are forced to face reality and reason through it. Far too often they are unable to come to a conclusion.
Which leaves it to the readers. This book takes controversial topics, hashes them out, and then hands them over. The floor is opened to discussion and topics commonly seen as taboo in the classroom are safe and encouraged.
It should be read, and studied, because it is real. Because it welcomes the real and asks the reader to welcome it as well—to consider what to do with the real.

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