REVIEW: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Janine: Jennie and I loved Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s breakout novel (Jennie even caught up on one or two earlier books by the author), so we reviewed her follow up, The Glass Hotel, together. When we heard she had a new book, Sea of Tranquility, we decided to write another joint review.
Sea of Tranquility, narrated in both third person and first person, is a speculative literary novel that follows four separate storylines. We begin in 1912 with eighteen-year-old Edwin St. John St. Andrew, whose aristocratic father exiled him from England for airing subversive views. After arriving in Halifax, Edwin is rudderless. He eventually attempts to join a farm in Saskatchewan, a business in Victoria, and then a logging venture on Vancouver Island with acquaintances. His heart isn’t in any of the three and he ends up lingering on Vancouver Island, in the tiny settlement of Caiette.
Jennie: I found Edwin the least relatable of the narrators. He seemed to be depressed, which I sympathized with, but he just wasn’t very compelling to me.
Janine: I’m with you on that. I still liked his sections, but more for the setting details (the 1910s are a period I love to read about).
One day Edwin wanders from the beach into a forest. An unfamiliar priest walks by and introduces himself as Father Roberts, filling in for Father Pike, who had to leave the island. After they part, Edwin passes under a maple tree and has a strange experience. For a moment he enters a dark, cavernous space like a train station. Violin music is playing, Edwin is aware of being surrounded by other people, and he hears a sound he doesn’t recognize. Then he’s back on the beach. He sees the new priest enter the church and follows him.
Jennie: When this experience, which is repeated by others and forms the heart of this book, happened I made an assumption about what was happening. What was strange was not that the assumption was (apparently) wrong, but that none of the characters in the book ever considered what seemed obvious to me. Instead, they go down a different (interesting!) track.
Janine: Yes, we talked about that. I didn’t assume that but I did wonder why other characters didn’t consider it a possibility.
Father Roberts asks Edwin how he is. Edwin confesses he saw something supernatural, then clams up. The priest has a strange accent and will only say that he’s from “Far away. Very far away.” No one can leave or arrive in Caiette except by boat, and Edwin hasn’t heard of a boat coming or going. Edwin walks out, then sees Father Pike walking toward him; Father Roberts obviously lied. Edwin glances back at the church, but it’s empty.
The story then shifts to 2020 and a stage performance by Paul Smith, a renowned violinist and experimental musician. Paul screens his sister Vincent’s home movies on stage as he performs. These were shot when Vincent (the protagonist of The Glass Hotel) was a teen. In one clip, Vincent walks under a maple tree. For a moment there’s darkness, a cacophony of people in something like a train station, a snatch of violin music, and a whooshing sound that might be hydraulic pressure. Then the maple tree again. The camera tilts, suggesting that Vincent was frantically glancing around.
Mirella Kessler, now in her late thirties, shared a tight, supportive friendship with Vincent over a decade ago. Then the truth came out—Vincent’s husband Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy investor, had been running a Ponzi scheme. Mirella’s husband Faisal had invested his life savings with Jonathan’s investment firm and recommended it to family members. They and Faisal lost everything. Faisal, feeling ashamed and guilty, committed suicide. Vincent told Mirella she knew nothing about the fraud, but Mirella didn’t believe her and cut her off.
Recently Mirella has been having second thoughts. Could Vincent have been telling the truth after all? Mirella tries to track her down but discovers nothing, so she attends Paul’s performance. She intends to corner him and ask for further information.
Two men wait with her for Paul to emerge after the show. One introduces himself to Paul as Daniel McConaughey, a fan. The other, Gaspery Roberts, congratulates Paul on the wonderful performance. Daniel apologizes for using hand sanitizer before shaking hands—he’s concerned about “this thing in Wuhan.” Gaspery says the risk of transmission of Covid-19 through fomites is very low. Confused, Mirella sees Paul and Daniel also frown; none of them know what “fomites” or “Covid-19” are. “Oh, right,” Mirella catches Gaspery saying to himself, “it’s only January.”
Jennie: Without saying too much, I felt this bit was heavy-handed. When I knew more about Gaspery, I thought it was even more so. There are several examples in Sea of Tranquility of certain characters showing their hands in ways that don’t really make sense, but advance the plot. Those instances felt clumsy to me.
Mirella, Paul, Daniel and Gaspery go out for drinks. Daniel continues gushing. Gaspery asks Paul about the footage from the forest and Paul says Vincent filmed it near her hometown, Caiette, on Vancouver Island. Mirella asks Paul what happened to Vincent and learns that Vincent drowned after falling off a ship. She leaves abruptly and finds refuge in a park across the street. It’s nighttime and could be dangerous, but she’s too distraught to care. But Gaspery Roberts seems to cares; he finds her in the park. When Mirella asks who he is, he says that he’s a kind of investigator.
Gaspery seems familiar but Mirella can’t place him. He asks if Vincent ever talked about the time she filmed the strange video but Mirella can offer him no information. Then she recognizes him. When she was nine and lived in Ohio, she and her sister walked by an overpass and heard a gunshot. A gunman slumped against the wall; two bodies lay nearby and a fourth man ran away. The police came and arrested the shooter. Gaspery looks just like him.
Most chilling, then and now, is that though she’d never met him before, the gunman said her name. As soon as she remembers Gaspery, Mirella flees the park. But later that night, she realizes the arrested man couldn’t have been him. It happened thirty years ago, and Gaspery looks no older than that man.
Jennie: Dun-dun-DUN! (I kid; I actually liked the interaction between Mirella and Gaspery and was interested in the resolution to that mystery.)
Janine: We then move to 2203. Olive Llewellyn is the author of a bestselling post-apocalyptic pandemic novel, Marienbad. She lives on a moon colony but is touring earth to promote a new book. Olive’s husband and young daughter are at home and Olive really misses them, but she feels driven to continue the exhausting tour. Even when a new pandemic emerges, Olive stays.
There is a section with a fourth main character that takes place after Olive’s and is set further in the future, but I don’t want to say much about it. After that we catch up with all four characters again.
My feelings about this book are mostly good, but they were mixed about Olive’s sections. I think Mandel wanted to convey that book tours are exhausting and repetitive, but the repetitiveness got boring and I also became frustrated with Olive. Her suffering seemed needless and her priorities were clearly wrong.
Jennie: In a way it felt realistic to me, though? We so often cling to familiar routines and obligations even when evidence mounts that what we are doing isn’t important and there are clearly bigger things to worry about. (I’ve come to believe that the metaphor of the frog in water that comes to a boil can be applied to SO many situations in life. At least my life.)
Janine: You’re right but I was still frustrated with her. Especially since she was endangering her life and (potentially) the lives of her husband and daughter.
Olive’s storyline, thoughts and dialogue also read like a way for Emily St. John Mandel to speak to her experiences with Station Eleven, which Olive’s novel Marienbad resembles. In our recent discussion of anachronisms, you said you didn’t want to think about the author while you were reading. With Olive, I felt Mandel was forcing me to.
Jennie: You know, this didn’t occur to me, but when you mention it, it is obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t see Olive as a stand-in for Mandel.
Janine: Well, she lives on the moon in the twenty-third century, so I can see why you wouldn’t. I don’t see her as a stand-in but I do feel her storyline was designed to facilitate meta commentary.
I am not usually a fan self-referencing in books because it can make me preoccupied with things outside the concerns of the book. It’s clear some things here are drawn from book tour experience and I feel Mandel wants readers to recognize that, but for me that brings up thoughts about her private life. When I read a book, I don’t want to be distracted by extraneous questions like whether Mandel plays pretend games with her child, as Olive does, or if her marriage is really that loving.
Also, Olive’s confrontations with Marienbad’s readers in the book tour Q and A’s were over things I’ve heard Station Eleven readers complain about, like the anticlimactic nature of the death of a character named the Prophet, and the main characters not meeting by the end of the book. I loved these aspects of Station Eleven but I still didn’t want to see Mandel using page space in Sea of Tranquility to complain about readers who didn’t. Especially since some of them will have spent their money and time on Sea of Tranquility, only to read defensiveness leveled at them (to be fair, this was mitigated a bit by the way Olive gave consideration to their questions).
Jennie: I actually thought Olive had a bit of an attitude with some of the interviewers, but I chalked it up to her general lethargy/sense of dislocation/homesickness.
Janine: Yes, I saw that as the case as well. Despite my mixed feelings about the meta commentary, I think that maybe it was necessary. Without it, Sea of Tranquility could have been a retread of many other science fiction novels.
The rest of the book held my attention pretty well, better than The Glass Hotel did. Though I think Vincent in The Glass Hotel was a better-developed character than any of Sea of Tranquility’s characters, I felt that Sea of Tranquility was the better book. When we reviewed The Glass Hotel you pointed out that the Ponzi scheme storyline didn’t gel that well with Vincent’s personal story. I agreed with that, and I think Sea of Tranquility is more cohesive, giving it a stronger narrative and better pacing. It’s also less monotone. The four storylines are woven together more tightly and also ordered well. The different perspectives, time periods and the maple tree mystery that pulled them in together each had a different but complementary feel.
Jennie: I absolutely agree. The themes felt unified (sometimes to a fault; there were a couple of times I felt that Mandel was hitting me over the head with one of her points).
Janine: I had a question with regard to Gaspery.
Janine: There were science fiction concepts here that felt not particularly original (such as a theory about the anomaly), but the way everything came together at the end was satisfying. I guessed at a couple of the big twists well ahead of time but not the ultimate one.
Jennie: I don’t know that I guessed any of the twists – I had a couple of ideas percolating in my brain but hadn’t put things together entirely.
Janine: My best reasons for enjoying the book involve spoilers.
Spoiler (BIG): Show
Janine: I liked all of the four significant characters, though I noticed a few plot holes too spoilery to mention. On the whole, I felt that Sea of Tranquility went beyond solid to quite good. B+.
Jennie: In spite of the fact that I feel like I keep thinking of new plot holes (maybe hard to avoid with some of the themes of the book?), I liked Sea of Tranquility enough to give it a B+.