Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

4/5 stars

The premise of this book maybe sounded a bit more foreign before Covid-19–imagine being stuck in a small confined space with your family!–but honestly, this made Gaige’s novel all the more compelling.

Juliet and Michael (who met at Kenyon College, my alma mater, and this comes up a lot throughout the book–even though Gaige didn’t go there, she must be close to someone who did because the campus details are hauntingly accurate) are strained in their marriage, after Juliet struggles to complete her PhD and Michael rises to a well-paying but unfulfilling middle management role. A couple divided across political lines, Michael makes the somewhat rash decision to buy a 40-foot yacht and sail the world with his family in tow. Their children take to the seafaring life quite easily, while Juliet struggles to adapt and find her footing, literally and figuratively. Despite its beachy title and cover, this reminded me of the movie Midsommar–equal parts relationship drama and horror movie, told in endless, disconcertingly bright sunshine.

The book is told in a variety of perspectives, through Michael’s ship log, which starts to function more as a diary, and Juliet’s narration as she adapts to life back at home after the journey and after something has gone horribly wrong. After all, it’s a story set on a boat, something has to go wrong. Gaige is an adept writer, capturing the divide between husband and wife clearly, with enough thriller-esque tension to keep you reading.

Much like how arguments between couples are never really about the couch or the paint colour or what you’re having for dinner, Sea Wife isn’t really about the sailing trip. Juliet and Michael are a troubled couple, but are still profoundly in love–I really like how Gaige captures this, and while the reader bounces between hating Michael, hating Juliet, and hating both of them, you understand why they fell for each other. These passages will keep you reading even when the narrative slows a bit for technical sailing talk or the somewhat-unfinished subplot of Michael’s shady friend who sold him the boat. This book felt like sitting in a therapy session, in the best way possible. I’ve seen a few reviews complaining about the big, symbolic political arguments between the couple, but honestly I thought they were well-written and accurate–capturing how Juliet and Michael are trying to reconcile each other with the people they met decades ago in college.

I won’t spoil the ending, but one of the best portions of the book, for me, was the chapter of excerpts from Juliet’s dissertation on confessional poetry, finding her voice as an academic as you now know the full story of her life and marriage. It was reminiscent of the often-neglected ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which an academic recounts the events of the story and reframes the narrative in a different context. And it reminded me of the best literature seminars I had at Kenyon, finding grounding in the works of others while trying to form my own voice. This book crept up on me, and while it definitely won’t send me packing for a sail around the world, it did make me feel at home in the strangeness of the sea.

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