Monday, March 6, 2023

Book Review: At Sea

By Jami Denison

The course of evolution can be traced in the human body. Our ears evolved from gills; hiccups are thought to derive from that ancient path. And humans have always been drawn to the sea. We fought our way out of the ocean, but many long to return.

At Sea, Massachusetts author Emma Fedor’s gorgeous debut novel, is a reminder that the seductive ocean can hide all sorts of dangers beneath its waves. And that love can make one blind to jeopardy. 

At 22, newly minted college graduate Cara is adrift. Still grieving her mother’s death from cancer a few years ago, she feels isolated from her family, as her father moved to Arizona with her younger brother and remarried. She returns for the summer to her great-aunt Moira’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, planning to spend the time painting and getting ready to move to New York City in the fall. Instead, she meets and falls in love with Brendan, a special forces agent who has a dark secret – a classified military experiment gave him the ability to breathe underwater. When he lifts his arms, she can see the slits that act as makeshift gills. He disappears into the sea right in front of her and surfaces long minutes later. 

She doesn’t doubt him for a minute.

Six years later, Cara is stunned to hear tales of a man and a boy swimming together deep in the ocean. It has to be Brendan and their son, Micah. But her husband Graham thinks it’s just another wild goose chase. Will Cara ever be reunited with the son she lost? 

At Sea takes place in two different time periods, telling the story of Cara and Brendan’s love affair in the past, and in the present tense, following an older, sadder Cara’s life without Brendan. While told in close third person, the writing is descriptive enough that the reader can question Brendan’s sanity much sooner than Cara does. 

The novel defies classification. At times, it feels like domestic suspense as Cara desperately hunts for her son. The descriptions feel like literary fiction; Brendan’s abilities sci-fi or fantasy. The relationship drama between Cara, Brendan and Graham feel more like women’s fiction. With deft prose, Fedor keeps the reader engrossed even while the characters sometimes seem unbelievable. Cara seemed more like a 1980s 22-year-old than someone in 2008, quickly giving up on finding Brendan online and never contacting anyone in the military when he disappears. And Moira, who should have been a voice of reason, encourages Cara’s worst impulses, believing in the power of love and breathing underwater than more cynical and logical conclusions. 

Despite these small shortcomings, I loved this book. It reminded me of how I felt as a 22-year-old, newly in love when no one could talk any sense into me. There’s a scene early in the novel when Cara daydreams about life as a successful New York City artist; it’s a seductive fantasy that any kind of creator can recognize. The hole left by her mother’s death is deep; Fedor draws a line for the reader showing how Cara’s feeling of being abandoned by her father and brother led to her relationship with Brendan. These wounds, combined with Cara’s age and lack of direction after graduation, make her impulsive decisions believable. 

There’s nothing like that feeling of first love, but I wouldn’t want to be 22 again under any circumstances. The strangeness of Brendan’s powers aside, Cara’s story could be that of any young woman who ignores her lover’s red flags because she’s so drunk on love. At Sea showcases the best of a writer’s talents: the ability to tell a unique tale that showcases universal emotions. Fedor has a promising career ahead of her, and I look forward to her offerings.  

Thanks to Gallery for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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