Book of the Month: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Welcome to the Book of the Month! Let's get into it. One important thing you need to know about the book of this month is that it is about time travel. Yes. I will be honest that I didn't know that before going in; I knew nothing about the book before going in. If I knew it was about time travel, I am not sure I would have gone ahead with it. There are also some other things that made me a little uncomfortable but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The book of this month is Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. It is a journey that takes us across time and space...I had to pause after those words because between you and me, I'm not quite sure how to give a blurb/short summary of this book off the top of my head even though I literally just finished it last night and it's still fresh. Take two. It tells us the story of four different people (Edwin St. Andrew, Mirella, Olive Llewellyn, and Gaspery Roberts) across numerous centuries but all united by one weird experience: notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal—an experience that affects them both similarly and differently. When I say time and space, I mean that literally. We are taken on a journey on Earth (in Vancouver Island) in 1912 all the way to five hundred years later in both earth and different colonies on the moon (a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty where humans now reside). The author creates a fictional world that bears a lot of semblance to normal humanity across centuries and space. The book starts with seemingly unrelated characters: Edwin arrives in Canada in 1912; Mirella goes to speak to the brother of an estranged old friend in 2020 New York; Olive is visiting Earth (from a colony in the moon *sigh*) in 2203 for a book tour; and in 2401, scientists are investigating a theory that the world is a simulation. It isn't as the story builds that we see how they all overlap and the recurring them across all stories.

Online, this is described as intellectually playful. I agree. It is indeed the full extent of one's imaginations and that's what writers' dreams are made of. The book is gentle, tender, and forthcoming in a lot of ways. It also has very VERY GREAT reviews online (over 150,000 people rate it on Goodreads) and that alone is no small feat. I loved how slow-building it is. This allows you to consume St. John Mandel's literary style. She explores characters with enough depth and her writing is truly beautiful. The complexity, I believe, is also carefully designed to provoke the reader, to get us thinking about it all. So what? How do we proceed? Is this all there is to it?  It is a story of grief, finding purpose, loneliness, and confronting your humanity.

She addresses numerous themes and sometimes it's hard to understand what they are (or what she is driving at until the moment has passed). One of those themes is pandemics: across different centuries, of course. The way she wrote about it is surreal (like Covid, also flu like and like Covid, also first taken for granted before the reality blanketed us and our dreams, present, imaginations, way of life, and possibilities). This made me uncomfortable. Covid was a real trauma and I know it's hardly treated as such, but I don't think I can ever forget that number/case count permanently etched on CNN. We really went through it as a collective humanity. So, this was a case of "too soon" for me. I'm not ready for people to toy around with this and make it into something to make money off of as we do every single thing. I don't want to see a movie about it or read about it. No. So this part is on me for not doing my due diligence on what the book is about.  "...captures the reality of our current moment" has been used to speak of praise of the book. This is precisely my problem. 

Across centuries, the dialogue is the same. That does not make sense. It also doesn't feel like you are in a different century. It's 2401, a character stops at the bakery to...pick up red velvet cupcakes. In 2401? Red velvet cakes? To be clear, to tell stories like this, across time and space, is a huge undertaking. But from what I have read, if anyone dares carry out such a challenge, it would be St. John Mandel. Yet, the execution of this one falls flat. Even when you talk to those madly in love with this book, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly they loved about it other than the fact that it was written by Emily St. John Mandel. And that just can't be enough. Is a book great just because it is complex?

For me, this story never really comes to an end. There is a hardly a direction or a destination. I say this as a matter of fact, not as a critique.

I'm not going to lie. I'm not the most enthused about this book. The gushing reviews just stand in stark contrast with my experience of the book. Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the book enough to make it the Book of the Month. There is something I love about it. But there also is some thing that leaves me wanting for more.



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