The Short Version: Mercy Rathbone’s father sailed away ten years ago and hasn’t been seen since. Her mother walks the widow’s walk at night, looking for him – and Mercy has been all but forgotten. After a night of surprising violence, she and her cousin Mordecai flee Rathbone House and decide to sail off after Mercy’s father. What they discover is nothing less than the story of the Rathbone family.
The Review: It seemed like such a no-brainer to start this year’s visit to the October Country with a crisp Northeastern sailing novel. After all, some would say that the Great American Novel is a sailing – nay, even a whaling – novel (although having never actually read it, I’d argue that Gatsby is the GAN, but, that’s for another time) and plus, the pen-and-ink drawing on the cover gives me that sensation of autumn. Too bad the weather in New York decided to take a turn for the muggy and awful this past week – and too bad the novel didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
I’m struggling to encapsulate my feelings about this book because I rather feel as though the book doesn’t do a fantastic job at encapsulating itself. It never knows quite what it wants to be and continually undercuts itself whenever it gets too close to being one thing. Is it an adventure novel, in the classic (and Classical) sense? Starts out that way but retrospectively, there’s very little adventure going on. Is it a coming-of-age story? Yes, but there’s also quite a bit of epic family history – to the point that we don’t so much care about our main character as much as we do the other family members.
I think that’s actually my biggest gripe about this book: Mercy was less interesting to me than almost all of the other characters we meet over the course of the novel. Moses Rathbone’s vision (both literally and metaphorically), the golden girls of the Starks, even Mordecai – they’re all more interesting characters than Mercy, because Mercy knows/understands so little. She greatly comes of age over the course of the novel but I’m not sure that anything she learns feels entirely… earned, I guess, is the word I want to use. She makes a realization about her father at one point but then… doesn’t really seem to register it for several more chapters. It all just felt hazy.
Indeed, Mercy’s whole quest felt hazy when compared to the rest of the book. Was it originally meant to be an epic retelling of the Odyssey? There are sirens, there are strange other islands of ruined temples and odd families… but Clark rather gives up on the sea journey and that feels like a betrayal to the reader.
At the same time, though, I can kind of understand why. Every time we hear snippets of the family history, those are the stories we’re drawn to. It is more interesting to hear about how the Rathbones rose and fell than it is to hear about their current bottoming out. And Clark’s writing seems to encourage that interpretation – the chapters of history fly by, as fun to read as they must’ve been to write. It can be almost jarring when we suddenly snap back into the somewhat less magical present.
I’m also curious about the Gothic/macabre/magical elements of this story – and why they stay so heavily on the periphery. It’s a setting that should encourage the writer to really go whole-hog: a strange, ramshackle house, a creepy/odd cousin in the attic, strange sexual things not yet understood by children, a cursed family, a dead child. All of the elements are there but Clark seems to pull back each time she gets to the brink – and that’s a shame. The Rathbones clearly had magic in them at one time, with this ability to see into the water, see the course of the whales and understand them – but we never really get into it other than seeing it fade away. While that fade is an interesting plot point to be certain, it’s also… I don’t know, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to support the magic of the Rathbone family. BUT then there are these quirky moments like the current Stark archipelago, the sirens, even the super-old Rathbone wives… I don’t know, there’s just a lack of cohesion to the story and I can’t quite explain it otherwise.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I wanted so much more from this book and that’s always the curse, isn’t it? I wanted it to be something that it wasn’t, based simply on the blurb and the cover – and so then my rating becomes about the distance between the two. This is a well-written book, full of feeling and beauty, but it also lacks a certain something, a certain cohesion, that might’ve made it exceptional. Every time the magic sucks you in, there’s something to drop you back out again – that inconsistency is just a bummer.