Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Writing:**** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
(Be it known that I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book and some things may change before publication.)
I liked this book. It’s realistic, somewhat romantic, somewhat nerdy YA. It’s Australian, so the seasons were confusing. It’s about the ocean.
Words In Deep Blue was nice and distracting after I devoured Jessica Mitford’s (also delightful) Hons and Rebels, which got me a little worked up about politics and history repeating itself, etc. Cath Crowley’s book was entirely amusing and touching without weighing too heavily on my mind.
Rachel’s brother drowned. That’s the beginning. Her brother Cal drowned and now she can’t go near the ocean, even though the ocean had always been her favorite place, the thing she loved most. This book has a lot of love in it. Siblings who want each other to be happy. Parents who don’t know how to help, but will do whatever they can, even when their own lives are in shambles. Parents who kind of drop the ball but there’s love there, too. Love for literature, for Dickens, for Borges, for classics mixed with Zombies, for books about fish. Nearly half the story takes place in a second hand bookshop, where customers leave letters between their favorite pages.
If that’s not romantic enough for you,there’s a love story between young people, too. Several pairs of love stories, really. Rachel and Henry, who used to be best friends, who stopped speaking after a miscommunication that wasn’t quite so tragic as Tess Durbyfield’s letter-under-the-door incident, but isn’t too far away from it, either. The two of them were very perfect for each other, but he was in love with Amy, beautiful and inconsistent. Henry never replied to Rachel’s love letter when she and Cal moved to the shore, so she decided they weren’t meant to be together, not even as friends.
So now that Rachel has returned to town, and is even working at Howling books, owned by Henry’s family, things are…tense between them. She’s hostile and rude. He’s clueless. She hasn’t told any of her old friends that Cal died, but it’s keeping her from finding joy in anything. Poor Henry is just confused because Amy dumped him and his heart’s broken and his separated parents might sell the bookshop and his best friend came back after over a year but she’s practically a different person. “Poor Henry,” I thought to myself every twenty pages or so, reading Words In Deep Blue in the Dublin Airport. Poor young man who loves T.S. Eliot and loves his family and isn’t very good at dealing with girls. But man, poor Rachel, who doesn’t even believe in ghosts but dreams of her brother and finds his handwriting in the letter library at Howling Books. That girl has had it rough.
Then there are the fun entanglements, the courtship between endearing Martin and Henry’s gothy sister George, thrown together at the bookshop, butting heads. Amy and her dickhead new boyfriend, who truly deserve each other, even while Henry thinks he would do anything to get her back. Rachel and Henry’s friend Lola, whose band mate might be moving on without her, is a supporting character straight out of all the best romantic comedies – she has the answers to everyone’s mistakes except for her own.
The book is funny and sweet even while it’s full of grief. The “deep blue” of the title strikes me as a reference to the darker parts of the ocean, the unknown parts of the earth that so fascinated Cal. Rachel and Cal loved learning about the ocean. Before she failed out of year 12, she earned excellent grades and wanted to study marine biology. But her passion and drive abandoned her when Cal died, and the loss of those loves along with the obvious love of a little brother makes her grief so pointed and sympathetic.
We are the books we read and the things we love. Cal is the ocean and the letters he left. Our ghosts hide in the things we leave behind.” (p. 258 of galley.)
I’m sure there are several Big Ideas you could take away from Words In Deep Blue. Support your goddamn local independent bookshop, for one! Tell people how you feel about them because no one can wait forever to find out. But the barb that has stuck most solidly into my heart is this: you can re-join the living without forgetting who you lost.