Young Adult Book Review: Words in Deep Blue
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The following review of Words in Deep Blue (Random House, June 6, 2017) by Cath Crowley is from Food, Fitness & Fiction contributing editor Amber Lee (pictured below).
Here’s a description from Amazon:
Years ago, Rachel had a crush on Henry Jones. The day before she moved away, she tucked a love letter into his favorite book in his family’s bookshop. She waited. But Henry never came.
Now Rachel has returned to the city—and to the bookshop—to work alongside the boy she’d rather not see, if at all possible, for the rest of her life. But Rachel needs the distraction. Her brother drowned months ago, and she can’t feel anything anymore.
As Henry and Rachel work side by side—surrounded by books, watching love stories unfold, exchanging letters between the pages—they find hope in each other. Because life may be uncontrollable, even unbearable sometimes. But it’s possible that words, and love, and second chances are enough.
Words in Deep Blue is the first book I’ve read with a review in mind that I haven’t nitpicked to hell. All the flaws sort of fade away because the emotional core and the beautiful writing sweep them away. It’s a sweet story with a cast of memorable characters all filled to the brim with a genuine love of books and writing.
Cath Crowley is a master of writing with specificity, making every character unique and immediately endearing by describing the minutiae of their lives and interests rather than using broad strokes of character as many authors do. It is so easy to picture each character, and equally easy to love them. I felt like I was living in that town with them for a while, like I could see the buildings around town and could smell the ocean air of Rachel’s memories.
It shouldn’t surprise me that an author would love books, but it was extremely apparent in the sections about the characters’ taste in books or the store itself that they know what they’re talking about. The only times I paused in reading were to write down the titles and authors mentioned because I genuinely want to read their work myself. While the entire novel dealt with adult situations such as death of a loved one or financial struggle, they were balanced out with the childlike wonder and romance of reading. The structure of the book revolves around Rachel’s catalog of the annotations and letters in the secondhand bookshop and the semi-epistolary format adds depth and gives the message a wider reach with the tiny glimpses of other stories. The sense of universal connection through stories was admirably subtle, and for the most part shown rather than told through dialogue. Henry especially is characterized a lot by the books he loves and it shows not in just name dropping and exposition, but in the way his narration drops literary allusions and how much time he spends thinking about stories. His family’s cat is named Ray Bradbury, which I especially loved. The writing showed a deep understanding of how teenagers are consumed by their passions, and I loved learning about the kinds of music and books the characters enjoyed.
The other main motif, the ocean, was a beautiful way to show both the uniqueness of the characters’ interests and to show the theme of moving on and moving forward. The opening scene of the book that describes Rachel’s conflicted relationship with the ocean is breathtaking. I literally read the first couple sentences, paused, and wrote in my notes: “This is going to be a great book.” And it really was. I usually avoid books that start with a death because there’s a trend in young adult literature that relies on outside tragedy for easy empathy and character depth. A lot of the time, authors cheapen the experience by relying on a set mode of grief-ridden depression and having it magically disappear as soon as the love interest appears. But the way that Rachel’s grief was addressed was very realistic and handled with sensitivity.
Rachel’s grief is a quiet death of personality in a way that rings true to my own experiences and would definitely resonate with many readers. She makes bad decisions but takes responsibility afterwards and apologizes rather than expecting a freebie because she went through a death. It was refreshing to see the topic of death handled with a light touch rather than the heavy handed dramatics that often characterize similar stories. The whole novel felt like a soothing, healing process where all of the characters that are grieving are given space to breathe and grow. Henry does not fix Rachel with his love, but offers understanding and lets her define the boundaries as she slowly pulls herself together. I especially loved the way Rachel and Henry reconnected as friends before anything else. They gravitated naturally back towards a romantic relationship and it was very easy to root for them.
The only real qualm that I had would be that all of the quirky characters were not developed very much. While several had secondary storylines, they were never fleshed out and did not end up having much effect on the plot. Though it was good that the primary storyline stayed primary, it would have been nice to see the full potential of the side characters fulfilled. The villains especially were extremely two-dimensional. There was never any reasoning to their actions and they never felt like real people. They turned cartoonishly evil at a certain point, though the rest of the book is so good that I did not really notice this until I thought about it after finishing it.
From the themes of the book, the end should not have surprised me, but it did. I was expecting the conventional happy ending where Rachel is happy again and Henry’s bookstore is fine and they end up together and everything is normal and great. But the book is about forward movement–growing up and moving on. What I thought were obvious endgame couples did not happen and a lot of people had to let go of things or people they loved for the greater good. While it could have felt bittersweet, Crowley instead made it all feel immensely fresh and new. The ending was hopeful and uplifting while still being unexpected in how much the characters’ lives change. Henry especially really matured by the end, more abruptly than Rachel’s gradual acclimatization to life. And to add to that, the language of the book was just so beautiful in the end. It felt absolutely perfect when I finished the last page, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.
Here are some other reviews of Words in Deep Blue:
You can learn more about Cath Crowley and her work on her website.
Amber Lee is a high school graduate from Irvine, California. She was the Features section editor for the Beckman Chronicle and will be an English major at Occidental College in the fall. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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