Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Released: May 15th 2013
Source: Review copy provided by author
When high-school senior Noah Gallagher and his adopted teenage sister, Lo, go to live with their grandmother in her island cottage for the summer, they don’t expect much in the way of adventure. Noah has landed a marine biology internship, and Lo wants to draw and paint, perhaps even to vanquish her struggles with bulimia.
But then things take a dramatic turn for them both when Noah mistakenly tries to save a mysterious girl from drowning. This dreamlike, suspenseful story—deftly told from multiple points of view—dives deeply into selkie folklore while examining the fluid nature of love and family.
Sherlyn's note: I'd just like to congratulate Betsy on the paperback release of Tides on April 1st!
I first heard of the term selkies at age 11 when I read Half-Human, a short story compilation by Bruce Coville. Selkies have also surfaced in Karen Amanda Hooper's Sea Monster Memoirs series, which is mainly about mermaids. However, I'd never read a novel solely about selkies until Tides came along.
Now, that isn't the only reason why Tides is such a unique novel to me. It starts off quietly, softly dealing with tough issues like bulimia along the way, and there's even a lesbian relationship thrown into the mix. Towards the ending, the plot goes into high tide and you get a thrilling, action-packed finish.
Our main characters in Tides are Noah and Mara. Noah's interning at the Marine Science Research Center during his last summer before entering college, and he and his sister Lo go to live with their grandmother, Gemm, on the Isles of Shoals. Noah is endearing in his own geeky way, though he isn't exactly book boyfriend material. I could really understand his disappointment when he thought he was special to Professor Foster in the beginning. On the other hand, Mara, a selkie whose sister has been missing for many years, has to deal with the Elder of her selkie pod being unwilling to let the younglings grow up because of her sister Aine's supposed kidnapping. Mara's fascinated with humans, yet knows that she will never be allowed to properly make friends with them.
Tides gives an insight to selkie life and addresses the selkies' worst fear of having their sealskin stolen from them. The interaction between Cornwell's selkie and human characters are a beautiful representation of how fantasy and magic can be present in our everyday lives. I found Noah and Mara's first meeting so adorable. Their relationship takes a bit of time to actually start developing due to the plot's necessary setup, but I thought Cornwell showed Mara's headstrong personality brilliantly by introducing a major conflict between her and Noah in a later part of the novel.
I felt that the supporting characters could've been fleshed out more. Lo constantly struggles with her body image and is trying to recover from her bulimia. I would have liked to have stayed in her head a little longer, as towards the end it was quite of a touch-and-go as to how she started to overcome her condition. Ronan realising he couldn't do what he initially thought he could accomplish and learning his lesson was great, but I do wish Cornwell had written more about the younglings.
The lesbian relationship between Gemm and Maebh was something extremely new for me. It was pleasantly surprising to have an aspect of this novel focusing on the older LGBT set and this made it all the more sweeter on Cornwell's part, who introduced it in a nice, gradual way. Also, this relationship is the reason why the selkies in Tides are tied to our human main characters. However, though necessary, Gemm and Maebh's love story slowed down the pacing of the main plot quite a bit. It was a while before the main action and conflict could take off.
I couldn't grasp the novel's villain entirely. While his motive made sense at first, it still seemed like an easy way to label him as a mental person who did what he did because he was plain desperate. I actually predicted who the villain was early in the novel even before his identity was revealed. I felt that I was supposed to understand Cornwell's reason for adding in the villain's flawed version of his selkie story, but I couldn't. He would have been a villain with more oomph if there'd been more insanity added to him (for example making him a real psycho killer who has a dark past with selkies or something – someone who was more cruel, ruthless and downright scary).
Cornwell's fluid writing style grabbed my attention right from the prologue. She possesses the ability to simply yet vividly convey even the most abstract things, such as sunlight in water. I also love how she likens water to metal in her descriptions. However, while her multiple third-person POVs provide omniscience, they also take away elements of surprise, one of which is Noah finding out that Mara is a selkie (or perhaps it wasn't Cornwell's intention to surprise at all). Though the POVs are not confusing, I found myself a little more detached from the characters; the scenes were playing out in my head like a documentary and I felt something was missing – I can't pinpoint what, exactly.
I personally think what makes Tides a beautiful story in its own right is that its real life issues (the older LGBT set, unconventional romance, foreign adoption, eating disorders) come together to show just how a little love and understanding can go a long way. Cornwell doesn't write about these issues smack-in-your-face, nor does she present them with socially destructive consequences. Though not written in-depth, these are gently treated with love between the characters of this novel. With all that being melded with fantasy elements, Tides is an ethereal summer tale of selkies, romance, and familial bonds set in the Isles of Shoals.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Betsy Cornwell grew up in the wilds of rural New Hampshire and graduated from Smith College in 2010. She received her MFA in creative writing (with a minor in gender studies, you know, for fun) from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. After grad school, she ran away to Ireland to live with the fairies, and that's where she lives now, with a dreamy horse trainer, a black cat named Fagin, and a varying number of pretty horsies.
She taught fiction writing and film & television studies at Notre Dame, and now teaches creative and critical writing at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer program, as well as working as a private tutor. She's also been a columnist and editor for Teen Ink magazine, a radio DJ, a nanny, and a historical tour guide on a steamship replica.
When she isn't writing, Betsy enjoys traveling, knitting, cooking, and nerdy TV (especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer). She is also really tall.
Betsy is represented by the amazing Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.
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