I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Sea of Tranquility, the reader follows various storylines: a young man traveling in Canada in 1912, a woman grappling with her left after her marriage falls apart in 2020, an author on a book tour in 2203, and a man living on a moon colony in 2401. The first three of these all encounter a person whose presence or actions they can’t quite explain, and all three hear and see a strange sight they can’t quite identify. And in 2401, the man, Gaspery, uncovers details of these people’s lives and seeks to find out what they experienced.
Okay, this was a really hard book to summarize. Mostly because not only was it weird, it’s hard to avoid spoilers, oddly. I’ll do my best, though.
As I said, this book was weird. However, it was also pretty good! The most interesting part was definitely the way the different timelines connected and interacted, for lack of a better word. Moving back and forth in time in a narrative can sometimes make for a confusing experience while reading, but I didn’t have much of a problem following what happened when. I think the length of this book—right around 250 pages—helped with this; there just isn’t the time (pun intended) to get too lost and muddled.
The time travel element of this story was also quite compelling. The fact that there was some sort of anomaly that all these people saw, in all these moments in time, was a cool mystery to try to solve—what was the source of this bizarre occurrence? There is intrigue, rogue time travelers, and paradoxes that leave you pondering the very fabric of this narrative.
I also liked the characters well enough. The side characters aren’t nearly as developed as the point-of-view characters, but the settings and people within them felt well-realized and lived in. I especially liked Mirella’s chapters, though all of them consistently kept my attention. The scenes from Olive’s perspective felt the most grounded, as it’s likely at least some of her experiences are taken from the author’s own life as a touring author. And the moments that touch on an impending pandemic are sobering and hit close to home, giving a lot of emotion to those scenes.
However, while these characters are decent, they are definitely characters first and people second, at least to me. This being a work of literary fiction (albeit one with quite a lot of sci-fi), this doesn’t surprise me. They serve more as portraits of humanity, of a way to examine the human experience from various angles. This isn’t a criticism, and honestly I don’t really know where I’m going with this. As I said, this is kind of a difficult book to talk about. It was really good, but I don’t know how to explain it or my reaction to it beyond that. Sorry for this slightly off-kilter review!
In the end, I liked Sea of Tranquility more than I was expecting. After all, I didn’t know what to expect, so it could only surprise me. And I certainly wasn’t expecting a slightly bewildering, thought-provoking, humanity-examining journey through time and space. It was an undeniably weird book, not in a bad way, and while it certainly wasn’t a perfect novel, it is one that leaves the reader contemplating myriad questions. It’s also a novel that would likely be rewarding to read a second time—and who knows, I might do that someday.
Sea of Tranquility is published today, April 5th, 2022!