Friday Book Review: Sea Lovers

I just finished Valerie Martin’s story collection Sea Lovers, and it’s perfect for my first Friday review! I’m really excited to be including book reviews on the blog, and I have a reading list set for this year that I can’t wait to dive into. I’ve selected many of the novels, story collections, and craft books that I wish I’d read during my MFA program. I’m even casually referring to it as my “MFA-at-Home” booklist.

I’ll be reading beyond the list, of course, but I’m really looking forward to using these particular books to help me grow as a writer. I’ll be considering 3 things with each review: something I loved about the book in question; something about the book that took me by surprise; and something I noticed as a writer while reading the book.

Valerie Martin, Sea Lovers

Something I loved about this book:

The one thing I really like to see reflected in both my favorite musical albums and short story collections is a sense of progression. While at the very least, it helps if there’s a cohesive factor—something that allows the listener/reader to understand why these individual units have been brought to form a collective—I love it if the way in which a set of songs or stories are ordered and put together tells a story in and of itself.

Despite the fact that most of the stories in Sea Lovers have actually been extracted from other collections and compiled, there is no question as to whether a progression exists in this volume. Martin orders the collection using three thematic sections, titled “Among the Animals,” “Among the Artists,” and “Metamorphoses,” respectively. And while it’s definitely true that the section titles are an organizing principle, there is another level at which this collection progresses.

Martin’s book moves from stark realism through what might be considered the magically real right into the unexpected yet dauntless fantastic. The pace of the collection accelerates as its supernatural aspects increase, and by the time I got to the last story of the book, I felt breathless, exhilarated, and saddened by its end.

Something that took me by surprise:

I didn’t expect Martin’s fantastic stories to rival her realistic selections in their tragic nature, but they totally do. I was as saddened by the story of the centaur as I was by the story of the dead cat, which I really didn’t anticipate.

This isn’t because I think fantasy is any less capable of evoking sympathy in its readers than realism, but because it seems rare to find a writer of literary fiction who will allow fantasy the same emotional range she gives her non-fantastic fiction. There’s that awful sentiment within academic writing circles that there’s something lesser about genre fiction, and Martin just about smashes it to pieces with some of the later stories in this book. I didn’t expect to see this occur when I picked up the collection, but I was very happily surprised that it’s what I found upon reading.

Something I noticed as a writer:

My attention kept lingering on how Martin chose to conclude each story. Sometimes, the endings were almost abrupt; at other points, I thought I’d reached a conclusion and then found that there were several more pages left to read in that story. I came away thinking about how I end my own stories, and whether it’s always at the right moment. When has the reader (or the writer, even) had enough? What else might need saying? It’s something I’m definitely going to keep thinking about as I work on my own short fiction.

And that’s it for my thoughts on Sea Lovers! I’m in the middle of a Banana Yoshimoto novel right now, so don’t be surprised if that’s the next review to come.

Until next time, I hope your weekend brings you all sorts of wonderful books,

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