Note: I won an ARC of this book via giveaway hosted by Amy@novelgossip
How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.
Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.
(contains mild spoilers)
This was a wonderfully nuanced novel in its exploration of so many powerful themes through its characters. I thought it would be easier for me to talk about each of them taking turns for the three main characters:
I loved how Garner made sure he didn’t turn out to be a sad Mary-Sue version. I mean, he is described as someone with an athletic body, good with kids, and a loyal friend and totally disinterested with the fact that all these attributes would easily get him a date. Sounds typical and unreal, right? But, Garner does make him believable. There is a history, reason, and background to the way he is.
Sexuality: Sure, he is still pining for Meg, but you also see glimpses of how he is (or might have been) a regular teen when he does notice that someone is good-looking or mentally compares someone with Meg. The closest female relationship he has had since Meg left him is his friend-slash-coach Dara. There is a moment in the book where he does compare Meg to Dara and how he finds the former more physically and sexually attractive. I just found it interesting that the only person he immediately sought to compare with is the probably the only female friend he has. So, while Meg and he have a lot of shared emotional baggage and history which binds Otis to her, I wonder whether he and Dara could have ever been more than just friends.
Friendship – Oh, they were more than just friends all right!! I mean, not lovers but definitely not your regular buddies either. It was an intense friendship because at its root, it was borne out of a need to numb the past wounds. It definitely started out at a need-based relationship – Otis needed a routine something that would force him out of the grieving stupor over his brother’s death. Dara needed another goal to replace her own scuttled Olympics dream. So Otis welcomes Dara’s vigorous swimming training and humors her Olympics ambition for him. Dara was just content in living vicariously through him. But finally the carefully constructed and fragile schedule starts coming apart when Otis realizes that time is running out for him to confront Dara with the fact that he isn’t really chuffed about training for the Olympic trials. The mail from Meg and later, her reappearance further distracts him.
I absolutely loved his equation with Dara. Sure, at times their friendship felt symbiotic but there was something so pure and honest about it. I loved how Otis recognized and acknowledged that Dara was crucial for him to get through the months after his brother’s death.
Loss – Otis has grieved for the last three years, not just over the loss of his brother but also Meg – who leaves him without any explanation. His brother, Mason’s death is like a scab that he can’t scratch at, it is always there. He wants to preserve Mason’s memories forever, but each good memory is followed and clouded by the fact that they can’t be relived in the present day.
And Meg? Her disappearance hurt him, but her reappearance confuses him further. He sees that she has changed and realizes he isn’t the same either. He compares his pain to that of a phantom limb – of something that exists in nothingness and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.
Definitely one of my favorite characters this year!! She is described as someone who is gritty, hates sympathy coming her way due to half her left arm missing, and has always had a bit of a reckless streak in her.
Sexuality – This book and Dara will definitely be on my LGBT recs list this year! I loved how Garner wrote her as she was trying to let her defenses down and accept that there is nothing wrong to be a little “vulnerable” in love. It was a huge step for Dara to let someone that close to her life – her inner thoughts and insecurities. It was also difficult for Dara because she knew it is something her father wouldn’t approve.
Parental Abandonment – Her father emotionally abandons her after her accident because he had set his sights on her winning the Olympics. She craves for that love and acceptance from him again and this is one of the reasons she is hesitant to reveal to everyone that she might be a lesbian. Because, she worries it might be the last straw for her father.
It isn’t just her father who has abandons her. Her mother does too… but to say anything else will be a huge spoiler.
Loss – She has suffered from many losses – of her parents, dreams, and a degree of independence with the loss of her limb. She insists on driving a car with a clutch and manual gear system (though she can afford a better car) because I guess, somewhere she likes being challenged every day? I wasn’t really sure why.
The hardest loss for her is definitely her limb because it isn’t just that – She doesn’t have half her left arm and what that leaves her with is the occasional phantom pain that she can overcome only by either the mirror box or Otis rubbing his hands in front of her (thereby creating a virtual reality). The pain is hard on her psyche especially when it shoots up during her swim sessions. After all the efforts to wave off sympathy, her body doesn’t support her when she most needs it and she feels embarrassed when her teammates watch her writhing. Moreover, it feels like a cruel taunt aimed at her whenever she is trying her best to continue doing what she loves – swimming.
Friendship – Otis is her protégé slash closest friend. He is the first one who is privy to her past and the first person in whom Dara has confided so much. I loved how Dara changed through the book, from someone who wanted to hold onto Otis for the lost dream he represented to someone who was willing to let him go for his sake. Some of the revelations in the end totally surprised me. Throughout the book, we mostly see how Otis is more perceptive towards her and understands her but we never really get a sense of it being reciprocated. But, in the end, we see that she understands him and has listened to him all these years.
Since the story is from Otis’ POV, we are as clueless about her as he is. I mean, a large part of the story’s “mystery” is centered on her. Why did she leave? Why did she come back? What happened in her life the past three years? These are the questions Otis desperately wants to know, and yet he is scared to ask because it is also related to Mason’s death. He has tried to stay aloof from the exact details so far because he is scared to know any further. This was probably the only part of the book that I felt a bit lacking – the whole routine where Meg wants to tell him but he doesn’t want to listen and when he does want to know, Meg doesn’t open up. It was built like a big mystery plot but the revelation isn’t that surprising.
Well, since Meg is a bit of an enigma and revealing anything more about her would be a major spoiler, I am just talking about a couple of themes (and skipping others):
Guilt – This was probably the reason for all that changed in her after Mason’s death. As the years pass, the burden becomes easier in some ways, but harder in many other ways. This intense feeling of guilt is also shared by Otis’ mom. One of my favorite Meg scenes is between the two, because it provided some sort of closure to a painful chapter in her life.
Loss – Otis was her best friend and first love ; so leaving him when she had just entered her teens was hard. In addition, she also has to deal with the loss of the family structure that she has always known – due to her parents separating.
– This was definitely my favorite book released this year. The ending was deeply satisfying and I was so happy that no character was shortchanged or treated shabbily by the other.