Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐
This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and it’s very possible that such high expectations contributed to my unfortunate disappointment. We follow a family embarking on a year at sea. The contrast between their isolation from society and their claustrophobic family dynamic exposes underlying issues between the parents. Namely, fundamentally different political beliefs, the lasting impact of childhood trauma, and resentment concerning gender roles.
I love this narrative setup and the vast thematic potential it presents. Sadly, much of the novel is spent meandering around these topics with little sense of drive or direction. The plot itself is presented to us via both parents’ perspectives; the journal Michael kept during their journey, and Juliet’s first-person narration in the present day. Because of this framing device, there’s little tension regarding how everything will turn out, as it’s all pretty clear from the off. But with commentary on the book’s many themes also largely surface level, I was often left to wonder what point the author was even trying to make.
Indeed, I think one of the book’s greatest issues is that it doesn’t know what kind of novel it wants to be. Its marketing sets it up as a thrilling page-turner, but I found this to be far from true, with much of the book given over to rather pedestrian descriptions of the practicalities of life at sea. It tries to offer meaningful social commentary on the impact that politics can have on relationships, but never seems to stick any kind of landing on this front. It tries to examine the difficulty of overcoming supressed childhood trauma, but again, it introduces the idea too late and fails to dive very deep. At one point, it takes a rather bizarre shift towards murder-mystery, though this thread wraps up just as quickly (and anti-climactically) as it appears. And to top it off, the final chapter is a somewhat experimental multi-media affair that felt like a bizarrely dry and unsatisfying note to end on.
Overcoming frustrations with the plot may have been easier had the characters really shone (I do think it also wants to be a character study, after all), but they often suffered from the common issue of not sounding like real people (especially the 7-year-old daughter). This, coupled with a lack of a satisfying end for most of their arcs, stopped me from ever feeling invested in them or their problems.
On a more positive note, I will say the author’s prose is very readable, she paints vivid pictures of life at sea, and though she failed to explore them with the kind of depth and impact I hoped for, the themes she touches on are very interesting and topical. However, I can’t deny feeling distinctly underwhelmed overall, left to ponder what could have been.
Thank you to the publisher for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. You can pre-order Sea Wife by clicking here.