On a Saturday morning in mid-July, I sat drinking my coffee and reading the New York Times Book Review. I turned quickly to “By the Book” a feature in which popular authors are asked all sorts of reading-related questions. This week, Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, American Wife and Sisterland was asked to name an author she felt was overlooked. This is what she said:
“I started graduate school at Iowa in the fall of 1999, on my 24th birthday, and in my first workshop, there was only one other woman. Her name was Susanna Daniel, and we quickly became close friends — she was fun to gossip with, and she could write amazing sentences. Susanna’s second novel, “Sea Creatures,” is out this month, and it’s an intelligent page-turner (that is, the dream combination) about, among other things, South Florida, art, insomnia and marriage.”
“I have that book!” I exclaimed internally and I pictured it sitting upstairs on my shelf. Though I had a dozen other books to review I felt, inexplicably, that Sittenfeld had united me with the book in that moment – like she was reaching out to me and asking me to read it. So I did.
Yes, Daniel can write some good sentences – the writer in me picked them out and gave them pause. But ultimately, this was not a page-turner for me – neither was it riveting, as other reviews promise. The problem is singular – Daniel’s narrator. Georgia Quillian is a bit of a drip – dull, introspective, understated. She narrates for pages and pages of exposition, much of it beautiful description, or necessary filler but none of it enough to carry the story. Nothing popped out at me with this book – not the characters, not the plot, not even the prose. Frankly, if I hadn’t agreed to review it, I would’ve put it down half-way through. But I had Sittenfeld and TLC Book Tours urging me forward.
And as I got further along I saw that the story began to meld together. The characters came into greater focus, plot points began to take shape in a way that mattered. Some things held sway on this reader: Frankie, the beguiling speech-delayed three year old; Georgia herself, who felt intensely and perhaps too attached to her son and Charlie, the gruff but lovable hermit who employed them. And then of course there was Graham, the plagued, sleep-deprived husband. These characters will begin to seep into your conscience but only in a very off-hand, peripheral way. Daniel just doesn’t imbue them (or her story, for that matter) with enough force. There is a powerful moment that comes later on, but then the narration begins to taper off again, and everything slowly settles down.
If you’re not in a hurry this summer and can do without an immediately gripping plot, give Sea Creatures a whirl. Particularly if you’re interested in any or all of these subjects – speech delays, marine living, familial bonds and insomnia – you’ll find something to latch onto here.
Many thanks to TLC Book Tours HarperCollins Publishers for my advance review copy!