Late last year, I came across one of the most beautiful books I have EVER read. It affected my reading experience of every single book that I picked up after that. Flawlessly written, a story that will blow your mind and the only book whose final two words literally took my breath away. Six months later, I am still thinking about this book and I am still applauding. Book junkies, I give you the spectacular The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay.
I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.
Two and a half years after an unspeakable tragedy left her a shadow of the girl she once was, Nastya Kashnikov moves to a new town determined to keep her dark past hidden and hold everyone at a distance. But her plans only last so long before she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the one person as isolated as herself: Josh Bennett.
Josh’s story is no secret. Every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. When your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space. Everyone except Nastya who won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But as the undeniable pull between them intensifies, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding – or if he even wants to.
“At the age when most kids are trying to figure out who they are I was busying trying to figure out why I was. I didn’t belong in this world anymore. It’s not that I wanted to be dead, I just felt like I should be. Which is why it’s hard when everyone expects you to be grateful simply because you’re not.”
Once in a blue moon a story comes along, sneaks up on you like a misty cloud rolling down a hill, envelopes you, fills all your senses and leaves a different person in its wake. This book might be called The Sea of Tranquility but it should have been called Hurricane Millay.
Nastya is a 17-year-old girl whose story is unveiled bit by bit throughout the entire book. We are offered little snippets from her past through memories, cryptic sentences, heroine’s unusual quirks, but this is as much a journey of discovery for the reader as it is for the characters. By not being given the whole story from the beginning, we bond with the characters on a much deeper level by desperately wanting to learn their story.
Our heroine is a troubled child. Her self-inflicted mutism has distanced her from the world around her and made her inner voice even more meaningful to listen. Something in her past made her leave the girl she once was behind, buried deep inside her shattered soul. Her fragmented personality is then taken over by a new strong in-you-face persona with clothes and make-up to match, one whose appearance scares people away from her but also effectively hides the frightened little girl inside.
“I don’t dress this way because I like it so much or because I want people to stare at me in general. But people are going to stare at me for the wrong reasons, then at least I should get to pick them. … If I’m going to get unwanted attention, better it be for my ass than for my psychosis and my effed-up hand.”
Nastya does not interact with people, not even with those closest to her. She fights her inner battles alone, finding coping mechanisms that tune out the shouting memories inside her head. No one knows what she is thinking or feeling because of the impenetrable mask that she presents to the world.
Until she meets a boy named Josh.
“I just wanted one person who would look at me and not want to see someone else.”
Josh is as much of a recluse as Nastya is, with painful emotional scars of his own, but with a marginally better grasp of them. They are drawn to each other but their friendship starts out slowly, baby steps at first, both apprehensive of their growing feelings for one another. They are two damaged people who carry the burden of their traumas inside them, never expressing them and never trusting anyone with them. But they slowly start trusting each other, opening up, creating a safe haven of two where they can finally lower their defences and be free to just feel.
“We’re like mysteries to one another. Maybe if I can solve him and he can solve me, we can explain each other. Maybe that’s what I need. Someone to explain me.”
But this is as slow a journey for these two broken characters as it is emotional. Nothing is rushed, they are flawed and they are real. They make mistakes, they sometimes take one step forward and two steps back, they show genuine emotions, reactions and moods. It is difficult as a reader not to become completely and utterly immersed in this story, become invested and responsive to the characters’ actions. Nastya and her inner voice will take your heart hostage and possibly keep a small part of it forever. It is not hard to imagine that a girl could react the way she did to the kind of trauma she suffered. Her pain is so tangible that it almost becomes a character of its own in the story. It drives her every breath, thought, decision. Her coping mechanisms will wreck your heart and you will never look at another book the same way.
“So I wrote. I spit every detail out of my head and onto paper so that the memory wouldn’t have any hold over me. I felt like a criminal. Like I was perpetrating some crime by not telling, and every night I was waiting for the nightmares to call me on it, to turn me in. So I took away their leverage. I confessed myself. Every night into the notebooks. The words were the sacrifice I offered up daily in exchange for dreamless sleep. They have never failed me.”
The love story between Josh and Nastya is so very romantic because of how difficult it is for these characters to allow themselves to love. Their romance is not a stereotypical love story, nothing is easy about it but they are both unable to fight it. The pace with which the intimacy between them slowly grows will undo you, every look they share, every touch, every gesture will melt your heart. This for me was the perfect love story because of how imperfect it is. We are not force-fed a fluffy little happy ending, we are given a GRAND FINALE. There are not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe this book. It raises the bar for the entire genre and it leaves you speechless for days, unable to get a grasp of all the ways this story affected you.
When I finished this book, I had to fight the urge to get up and give it a standing ovation. Frantic hand-clapping and all. If you are going to read one book this year, let it be this one.
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Katja Millay grew up in Florida and graduated with a degree in film & television production from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has worked as a television producer, and a film studies and screenwriting teacher. Currently she resides in Florida with her family. The Sea of Tranquility is her first book.
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