Two Star review, originally posted here on May 19, 2016.
It really pains me to rate this book so low. I really, really wanted it to be good. But it just isn’t good.
We’ll start with the positive:
Just like in Between Shades of Grey, Sepetys introduces western readers to a barely-known but highly traumatic piece of Baltic history, which in and of itself should have made me a bit more biased towards it. I’m Latvian, and am always stoked to see our history shared with the rest of the world. I was even more excited to read this book because, up until a couple weeks ago when my parents were telling me about this book, I had never even heard of these massive refugee disasters that killed so many of my people along with refugees from other countries. I was shocked (and slightly ashamed) that I had never heard of this, and thanks to Sepetys, another piece of my missing history is no longer missing. Thanks to this book, I’ve gone off on my own to research these events and have been learning a lot, which I believe is the eventual endgame of a book like this. In this way I guess it was successful.
The delivery just wasn’t there. It felt like Sepetys has grown more confident and comfortable with her writing, and so she took some more chances with her storytelling, which I admire. But usually these chances just fell flat or misfired. Unfortunately for this book, I have just finished reading two other books back-to-back (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Winter’s Bone) which both successfully weave beautifully flowing prose in with young protagonists, so following those books up with Sepetys’ admirable yet amateurish attempts was jarring.
But the major problem with this book is that it is just plain boring. It’s insane to think this about a book whose story centers on the tragic death of almost 10,000 people, but there it is. We honestly could have done without the first 300 pages, which just talks about the people walking towards the port and getting on the ship. Then the entire sinking and evacuation passing by casually in a few short chapters. And then the book is done. Nothing much really happens in the first 300 pages, and any character development dragged out during this section could easily have been accomplished in a few short pages.
We have a flat love story shoehorned in there again, just as unnecessary as the one in Between Shades of Gray. The male characters’ backstory was actually pretty interesting (and sent me on a Google mission to look up The Amber Room, etc., which is good) except it is never really clear what this guy’s actual master plan is. He’s stealing a swan and… then what? And, obvious happy ending, the two people who survive are our young lovers. I guess it’s not enough of a happy ending that they survive a catastrophe- to make it a true happy ending they have to get married and spend the rest of their lives together. It felt like Sepetys had watched Titanic and thought “No! Jack can’t die! I’ll just have him survive when I rewrite this with WWII characters, and they’ll live happily ever after!” It just felt contrived.
The second best part of the book is the afterward, when we are giving a brief explanation of the actual history behind the sinking. The best part of the book is the brief article my mom emailed me beforehand, where the author explains her thoughts as to why this event isn’t more globally known. The 3rd best part was reading the acknowledgements and bibliography where Sepetys explains the research that went into prepping for this novel.
All of which has me wondering… If she did all this research into this fascinating, terrifying event, why did she spend so little time actually writing about it? Why did she instead spend 300 pages on caricatures walking in the cold few a few days? I truly hope that Sepetys continues finding these underreported stories and bringing them to the public eye, and I will continue reading them when she does; but I also hope that she improves her focus and her polish (and that she eventually drops these cheesy distracting love stories).