Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Published by Vintage on March 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
A novel about a woman tossed overboard by heartbreak and loss, who has to find her way back to stable shores with the help of a giant Pacific octopus.
Ro is stuck. She's just entered her thirties, she's estranged from her mother, and her boyfriend has just left her to join a mission to Mars. Her days are spent dragging herself to her menial job at a mall aquarium, and her nights are spent drinking sharktinis (mountain dew and copious amounts of gin, plus a hint of jalapeno). With her best friend pulling away to focus on her upcoming wedding, Ro's only companion is Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who also happens to be Ro's last remaining link to her father, a marine biologist who disappeared while on an expedition when Ro was a teenager.
When Dolores is sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private aquarium, Ro finds herself on the precipice of self-destruction. Wading through memories of her youth, Ro has one last chance to come to terms with her childhood trauma, recommit to those around her, and find her place in an ever-changing world. A VINTAGE ORIGINAL
There’s a blurb at the front of the book, a letter from the book’s editor, comparing Sea Change to the documentary My Octopus Teacher and one of my favorite books from last year, Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. I picked this up because of that surface resemblance to Remarkably Bright Creatures and one of my other favorite books from last year, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea.
But there is too much Ro and not enough Lo for either of those resemblances to work. How much that does or does not work for an individual reader will be, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.
First, Ro is the human we follow in Sea Change, and Lo is Dolores, the octopus providing her with a bit of stability in her self-inflicted chaos as well as a fragile link with her childhood memories of a really good day with her long missing, presumed dead father.
Ro’s dad is a scientist who helped capture Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who had adapted to life in the ecologically damaged Bering Vortex between Alaska and Russia.
(It’s not specified exactly where or what this is, but it seems likely to be a combination of or an intrusion into the Bering Sea by the existing Polar Vortex. I could be completely off-base. One of the frustrating things about Sea Change is that it seems to be set in a near-future of our current world, but just how near or far is confusingly obscured. There are people who remember the song Hotel California from their own youth – as I do – but climate change is considerably further amuck than current conditions and a colony spaceship to MARS lifts off during the course of the story. The near-ish future setting of The Mountain in the Sea wasn’t half so vaguely frustrating.)
Ro’s life is a hot mess. And a cold mess. And most definitely an alcohol-soaked mess. The story is told from Ro’s (short for Aurora’s) first-person perspective, and it weaves her past into her present to give the reader an intimate portrait of how Ro thinks she got to be in the mess she’s in.
Everyone Ro loves leaves her, one way or another. Her father pursued science at least in part to get away from her mother, until he got all the way away and his ship went down in the Bering Sea. Her mother is emotionally distant, constantly disparaging and always angry, blaming Ro not just for her own mistakes but her lost father’s as well. Ro’s best friend has cut her off because Ro has been retreating too far into too many bottles to even be present for wedding plans. And her boyfriend broke up with her to go to Mars.
The only ‘person’ left in her life is Dolores, and even she’s being sold to a private collector. Much of the story consists of watching Ro flail around and sink deeper into a slough of despond. I wanted this to be like Remarkably Bright Creatures, where even in spite of the crap all of the human characters have been through, they find real, demonstrable hope at the end.
Sea Change, ends with possible hope but it’s a whole lot less certain and considerably more fragile, as is Ro. Where Remarkably Bright Creatures turned out to be more on the Relationship Fiction side of the genre equation, Sea Change fell squarely – or perhaps sprawled with many tentacles – on the side of literary fiction, which is just not my jam.
Escape Rating C+: For this reader, Sea Change was just ‘Too much Ro and not enough Lo’ as I said near the top. I hoped this would tilt more to the magical realism side of the equation, so that Dolores could be more of a character. Because Marcellus was so much of a character, Remarkably Bright Creatures was, in the end, more fun for me as a reader, even though it does go to some dark places in the middle and has a touch of bittersweetness in its ending. The Mountain in the Sea was very much in the vein of the science fiction of ideas where those ideas centered around communication with some really intelligent octopuses in a world gone mad. It wasn’t as purely fun as Remarkably Bright Creatures turned out to be but it was fascinating and absorbing every step of its surprising way.
Howsomever, if you’re looking for something lit-ficcy with tentacles, and a journey that doesn’t have a truly cathartic end but at least a somewhat hopeful one, Sea Change might be just right for you. My reaction to literary fiction is a ‘me thing’ and not necessarily a ‘you thing’. So if you love books that fall on the lit-fic side of the equation, give Sea Change a try. You might find it to be your jam after all.