When things get heavy and obligations pile up, that’s when it’s time to run. This, at least, is what much of American literature suggests. Huck Finn “light[s] out for the territory” when his Aunt Sally tries to “sivilize” him. When Ishmael feels “a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul,” he clears the spiritual weather by going to sea.
Amity Gaige’s new novel, “Sea Wife,” reimagines this typical American desire to escape from society, even from history itself. As in “Schroder,” her previous novel, Gaige here fractures a single, suspenseful plot into multiple parts. In “Sea Wife,” she cuts between two first-person narratives, each amplifying and complicating the other. One strand consists of the captain’s log of an ill-fated sea voyage, written by Michael Partlow — an unhappy businessman and would-be sailor who convinces his family to embark on a year-long voyage. The other offers an account of the buildup to, and aftermath of, this trip, written by his wife, Juliet Partlow — a stay-at-home mother and would-be literary scholar.
The Partlows are an ill-suited couple. Juliet, a former English major, loves poetry; Michael, a former engineering major, loves “man-tinkering,” “learning about electrical wiring by gutting another appliance.” She quotes Anne Sexton and Kenneth Patchen; he quotes his late father on Ronald Reagan. She voted for Obama, which annoyed him; he voted for Trump, which stunned her. (The two met in college, which helps explain their marriage. Still, the idea that such a woman would be with such a man — and that she would not know his politics until 2016 — strains credulity.)
Approaching 40, neither party is living the life they hoped for. Juliet, once a Boston College PhD student working on “female confessional poets of the mid-twentieth century,” has abandoned her dissertation. (As Juliet observes, “loving poetry functioned in inverse to the ability to finish a dissertation about it.” Too true!) Charged with caring for a young son and daughter in suburban Connecticut, Juliet makes meals, draws baths, and sobs uncontrollably, hollowed out by past trauma and current sadness.
Cutting between storylines generates narrative suspense: we know that things have gone wrong on that trip, we just don’t know how. It also allows for the interplay of two distinct voices and sensibilities. Juliet’s is skeptical, intelligent, and self-lacerating. Michael’s is less sophisticated, buoyant when it’s not bitter, and self-exculpatory.
The novel deftly grafts narrative mystery — what happened on that boat? What painful childhood memory is Juliet avoiding? — onto a sharp examination of domesticity. “I felt more than depressed,” Juliet says. “I felt that I was depression.” Juliet used to study the poems of Anne Sexton, their nightmarish excavations of motherhood and madness. Now her days have become a Sexton poem. “Duck duck duck GOOSE,” one section reads. “Mother mother mother GHOST.”
While Juliet feels a failure, Michael feels a victim, aggrieved against liberal culture and the so-called nanny state. For decades, Michael was quiet, stable, apolitical. Then, all of a sudden, he’s railing against “Maoist-style recrimination session[s],” hanging out with old men in MAGA hats, and imagining government power grabs. This is all a bit heavy-handed. Trump has drawn latent white-male bitterness into the open, but not so suddenly or unexpectedly as Gaige suggests. Indeed, the novel thinks about politics most interestingly within Juliet’s section, where it’s largely subtext. (Gender and parenting are always implicitly political issues).
Early on, Juliet reflects upon marital dissatisfaction: “Our marriage had — I don’t know — thickened, agglutinated, become oatmeal-like … Was there love? Yes, yes — but at the margins. At the center, there was administration.” (26) Oatmeal-like is no way to go through life, and Michael suggests that the whole family go to sea, spending a year sailing the Caribbean. Juliet resists. She doesn’t know how to sail (neither does Michael, really); the children have school. But eventually she agrees. Juliet describes this as an “act of loyalty toward [her] husband” (4). It’s as much an act of loyalty toward herself, a bid to prove that fear and failure will not consume her.
These are the conditions on land. Most of the novel, though, takes place at sea, and Gaige is a superb maritime writer. She writes beautifully about water and sky: clouds “aren’t passive. They are beautifully plastic and expressive. You just have to watch them for a long time” (152). She makes sailing seem both an existential drama (when a storm hits, it’s like Lear on the heath) and a complex technical enterprise.
“Sea Wife” describes the complicated reasons the Partlows go to sea with their two young children — in other words, what they’re hoping to leave behind. And, just as powerfully, it dramatizes what they find when they get to that space of yearned-for freedom, surrounded only by “more and more horizon, empty in every direction, an absence of interference, a vista without mediation.”
On the sea, Michael and Juliet experience moments of surprising comfort. But they’re finally forced to confront their individual and mutual wounds. Gaige considers what happens after we light out for new lands. We don’t, she suggests, emerge into pristine freedom. Rather, we encounter “pure, terrifying selfhood” — a self that can run from but never escape its history. To have a self is to be injured. To be a person is to treat, rather than erase, those injuries.
Americans dream of endless reinvention. “Sea Wife” shows the impossibility of such a dream: “Our losses will never be done with us. They have endless patience.”
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, the books columnist for “Commonweal,” and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”
Knopf, 288 pages, $26.95