A Review of The Sea of Tranquillity, by Katja Millay
Antisocialite Press, 2012/Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2012
by REBECCA, January 15, 2014
Though I got an ARC of The Sea of Tranquility more than a year ago, I put off reading it because I was worried it would be one more story of a high school romance that gave the characters past traumas instead of character development, insecurities instead of plot. The blurb sounded intriguing, but like it could go either way:
“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.” (Goodreads)
It turns out, The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay’s amazing debut, was everything I was hoping it would be. First off, it’s not a romance, genre-wise—as in, it’s not a book where the narrative arc is set by romantic developments between the characters. It’s good, old-fashioned literary realism that happens to feature teenagers but could just as easily be marketed as adult literary fiction. Told in chapters that alternate between Nastya and Josh’s perspectives, this is a story about how our scars and traumas of the past affect our present.
Before she was attacked, Nastya only cared about playing the piano perfectly. When she moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new school all she wants is to disappear. She dresses to keep people at arm’s length and, if that isn’t enough, she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Josh’s entire family has died, one by one, and he spends his time woodworking in his garage to shut the world out. Both are buried in worlds of their own making. Josh is convinced that if he lets anyone in he won’t be able to bear it when they leave him. Nastya is eaten up with the poison she feels toward the world and knows that speaking might let it out; and she needs it, because someday she plans to have her revenge.
What happened to Nastya to end her piano career is revealed slowly, petals unfurling throughout the book, and the facts of her attack aren’t particularly important. The point is that it changed her worldview and her voice is boiling over with vitriol and fear. The only way she manages to keep it together is exercise and baking. Every night, when her aunt and all her neighbors are asleep, she runs until she can’t run any more. One of those nights, her run takes her to a garage lit against the night: Josh’s. Slowly, in silence, they learn to be more comfortable with each other, to trust one another when they aren’t able interact with others.
The characterization in The Sea of Tranquility is spot-on. The characters’ circumstances aren’t wholly unique—there are certainly other books about a girl remaking herself after an attack, or about a boy shutting the world out after the death of his family. Still, they are particular in just the way good litfic manages. Nastya is hiding a whole life behind her heavy makeup and her silence and Millay strikes just the right balance between what Nastya reveals to the reader but keeps from Josh and what she lets him know.
At first, Josh’s character seems less complex than Nastya’s, as if he’ll be the proverbial safe-haven character, the warmly lit garage where she can land. But Millay does a masterful job of slowly revealing, as he gets more comfortable with Nastya, who Josh is when he’s not clenched so tight that no emotion can escape. Also, I love anything about an expert, and the scenes about Josh’s woodworking were awesome. The only friend Josh has is Drew, school golden boy with a perfect family and not a care in the world. Though they don’t acknowledge each other at school (to allow Josh to maintain his invisibility), Drew’s family is all Josh has left. Some of the most interesting dynamics occur when Drew is in the picture. Rather than being obnoxious, Drew is hyper-conscious of his picture-perfect life and behaves as if he can bring Nastya and Josh into it.
Little by little, everything that Nastya has slowly built in her new home unravels—after all, its foundations were so very tenuous—and both she and Josh have to face the fact that scars don’t go away. And sometimes, they don’t even heal. The Sea of Tranquility is long for YA (about 450 pages) but it never drags. The prose is beautiful and (one of my favorite things) Josh’s and Katya’s voices sound very different, and both are galvanizing. If you’re in the mood for a piece of beautifully-crafted psychological drama, The Sea of Tranquility is definitely for you. I can’t wait to see what first-time author Katja Millay comes up with next.
Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma (2010). Lochan and Maya have been acting like parents to their younger sibs ever since their father left. But, now, things have gotten really bad. As their family spirals out of control, Lochan and Maya turn to each other for support and care, and begin to realize that their feelings of love are romantic as well as familial. Can they keep their family together and still have a chance to be together when everything seems to be against them? My full review is HERE.
Made of Stars by Kelley York (2013). Hunter and his half-sister Ashlin have been friends with Chance since they were all kids, but haven’t seen him in a few years. Now, back together, they realize that there are things about Chance they’ve never realized. And they will change everything. Great character-building from a great author. My full review is HERE.
procured by: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility is available now.