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Sea of Tranquility – Emily St. John Mandel

I would list the HBO Max adaptation of Station Eleven as one of the few adaptations better than the book it came from. I loved that mini-series and thought it both illuminated and improved the source material. I do not feel it is a slight to Emily St. John Mandel to say that, as she was heavily involved in the adaptation. Mandel is one of the most interesting authors working right now. She is enormously talented at world-building and tight, beautiful prose. However, her characters always feel a bit cold to me. It’s not that they don’t feel real, but they feel more like people in reality than in a book. I feel like I recognize them but I don’t really know them. In Sea of Tranquility I think that may be the point.

Taking a structural cue from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Sea of Tranquility is a story that takes place in multiple timelines that all interconnect in surprising ways, and question the nature of reality. Displacement is a common theme as are pandemics which makes sense, since the book in the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. The inevitability of tragedy is an ongoing thread and the choices made when faced with being able to save a life are the engines that drive the novel. This was also what I took from The Glass Hotel. That book too was about choice and fate. Sea of Tranquility is about fate and it is also about time travel. However, it is mostly about how people and times all connect together into a past, present, and future with little separating them but a number.

The connections to The Glass Hotel are immediately apparent. While Sea of Tranquility is not exactly a sequel, I would call it a side-quel. Some of the same characters appear again here, as is the island of Caiette, but Sea of Tranquility has a tighter focus. Where The Glass Hotel was sprawling, Sea of Tranquility is concentrated on a few characters that we return to repeatedly.  One of the biggest surprises when reading Sea of Tranquility is that at times it is quite funny and autobiographical. One character, Olive Llewellyn, is on a book tour in the year 2203. The experiences she has and anecdotes that Mandel recounts feel very real and not fiction. The sexism Olive encounters, as well as the questions she gets about her book, are all things that have happened to Mandel on her own book tours as she explained here (spoilers).

At only 255 pages and with quite a bit of white space on the page, Sea of Tranquility is closer to a novella than a novel. This is not a criticism. As the book was wrapping up I was starting to wonder if, and how, it was going to all come together. It didn’t seem like there was enough time for her to do so. I shouldn’t have doubted Mandel, she saves the best trick for last. A penny drop moment that is dazzling, heartbreaking, and wondrous all at the same time brings the book to a close in a satisfying fashion.  Now that the pandemic is ending and things are starting to resemble normal we will see more media that tries to comment on the pandemic. This is only natural in the wake of major upheaval and some efforts are always going to be better than others. Sea of Tranquility is going to be remembered as one of the best. A novel about hope, fate, choices, isolation, and connection that will ring painfully true to anyone that looks back on 2020 and 2021 and sees a black hole of missing time, vaguely wondering what the hell happened.

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