Book Review: The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay
The Sea of Tranquility is a searing story of two damaged souls who connect with each other when there’s no place else for them in the world.
Nastya was a 15-year-old piano prodigy, sparkling and full of hope, when she became the victim of a random, brutal attack that stole away from her everything that mattered, including her music. As the books opens, three years have gone by, and Nastya is starting a new phase of her life. Hopelessly damaged and mute by choice, she moves to a new town to escape her past, marching silently through her new school in stilletos and slutty clothes, just daring the world to try to approach. Full of rage, Nastya runs until she’s exhausted each night, bakes endlessly to keep busy, and immerses herself in thoughts of hate and revenge.
Josh is a 17-year-old boy who’s lost every member of his family over the years. Completely alone, he’s considered untouchable at school — he’s the boy who is synonymous with death. Josh is emancipated just shy of his 18th birthday, financially secure but living a haunted, lonely life in his family’s home, with no one but himself for company.
When Nastya and Josh meet, they each see in the other the possibility of companionship without demands. By finding the one person just as messed up as they consider themselves to be, they’ve found someone they can be around without having to deal with well-meaning questions, pity, or empty promises of an improved future. Josh knows he has no one and never will. Nastya knows that her life truly ended three years earlier. But together, they can find a few moments of relative normalcy as they escape from the prying, uncomfortable eyes of the rest of the world — the people who get to be happy and live without tragedy and trauma.
In The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay doesn’t flinch from showing us the truly ugly, horrific scars — physical and emotional — that violence leaves behind. Nothing is sugar-coated here; Nastya is a walking freak-show when we meet her, so devastated as a person that she presents herself to the world in the harshest light possible. Josh can see past her surface, but only because he also is someone who’s had to build a wall of indifference and defiance around himself in order to walk through a world full of happy, clueless people.
Josh and Nastya’s growing connection feels real and well-deserved. One thing that always bothers me in fiction — and this comes up a lot in young adult fiction especially — is when two characters find themselves in deep and instant love within moments of meeting. They may announce that they feel this way, but often it doesn’t feel true or justified. In The Sea of Tranquility, the last thing Josh and Nastya want is to be in love. Everyone Josh loves dies; he’d rather stay alone than risk losing someone again. Nastya feels that the real her died years earlier; she’s so full of hate and self-loathing that the possiblity of loving or being loved just isn’t there. As they begin to develop feelings for one another, they fight it. They value the comfort and safety they feel together, but it’s a tenuous safety, and at the first sign of seriousness or emotional risk, it may all fall apart.
Something truly lovely in this book is the cast of supporting characters. Josh’s best friend is a boy named Drew, a swaggering, attractive, blond “Ken-doll” who flirts constantly and can (and does) get any girl he wants — but as we find out, the image is mostly for show. Drew is a true and loyal friend with the heart of a romantic, who uses his reputation as a cover to hide behind while he pines for the girl he let slip away. Drew’s family is wonderful. His parents host Sunday dinner each week, with doors open wide to whichever of Drew’s stray friends happen to need a place to be, no strings attached. Both Josh and Nastya end up taken in by this warm family and find a sort of refuge there that they can find nowhere else.
Nastya allows herself to speak to Josh, but permits no questions about her past, what happened to her, and why she is the way she is. As Josh’s feelings for Nastya deepen, his frustration grows, and finally she must decide whether to walk away or let him in:
I’m not sure how long we site in Josh’s truck, holding hands, surrounded by darkness and unspoken regrets. But it’s long enough to know that there are no stories or secrets in the world worth holding onto more than his hand.
This is not an easy book. Every move and word of Nastya’s is soaked in pain, and I found myself choked up and on the verge of tears repeatedly throughout this reading experience. The author provides a harsh, sad look at the lives of broken people, and doesn’t allow for easy answers or solutions. The ending is not neat and perfect — but it feels right. Nastya will never be who she was. The attack that stole her life can never be undone. Josh will never get his family back. But for each of these characters, there’s hope, and by the end of the book, they manage to take steps toward a future that might actually include happiness and peace.
Beautifully written with memorable characters, The Sea of Tranquility is a book that’s often hard to take but is absolutely worth it.
Review copy courtesy of Atria Books via NetGalley.