A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The very beginning of Vulpes Libris coincided with my (relatively late) discovery of YA, and Maureen Johnson was one of the first modern YA authors I read and enjoyed. In fact, I distinctly remember reviewing Johnson’s novel Devilish – but I’m not sure where and when, as this review certainly isn’t in our Vulpes archives! Was 2007 really so long ago that I’m starting to forget those years? Blimey.
Girl at Sea is one of the few books of hers I haven’t read before. I remember looking at it, assuming from the description that it had something to do with marine biology, and then casting it aside. (I find marine biology fascinating, but I loathe novels about marine biologists. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.) Turns out this was a big mistake, as: (a) Girl at Sea had nothing to do with marine biology, but underwater archaeology; and (b) it is now officially my favourite Maureen Johnson (thus far).
Clio’s parents are divorced, and it is with great reluctance and gnashing of teeth that she goes to Italy to spend the summer with her father. What sounds like a wonderful travelling opportunity doesn’t seem so great from a teenager’s point of view, when she has just landed a summer job in an art supplies shop alongside her crush Ollie, and her relationship with her father is strained to begin with. Her father – who can be generously described as a man of many enthusiasms – has come up with another crazy plan, and he wants Clio to participate. He has bought a yacht he can’t afford, and the purpose is to find something in the bottom of the Mediterranean: but nobody’s telling Clio what exactly it is that they’ll be looking for. The crew includes her father’s strange new partner Julia, the latter’s beautiful half-Swedish daughter Elsa, and Aidan, the young research assistant. Ah, Aidan. So prickly, so annoying… and yet, so intelligent and captivating – which is something that Clio doesn’t realise until it’s too late. Or is it?
Lively, witty, touching, romantic, innocent – a perfect feel-good read, with some very genuine emotions in between. Girl at Sea reminded me why exactly I liked Maureen Johnson so much. It’s in the structure of the plot, the believable characterisations, and the pitch-perfect descriptions: for example, writing of Elsa, ‘Clio had the strange flash that this was what the person who invented cheese must have been like – a blond dairy goddess.’ ‘Blond dairy goddess.’ Loved that.
The romance had some very basic, conventional elements – a bickering central couple, a confined and unfamiliar setting – but Johnson pulls it off very well indeed, even with a somewhat bizarre change of gear towards the end. It’s also interesting how contemporary this novel still feels, though the world has advanced technologically at an alarming rate in such a short time as seven years. One of the important plot points is Clio being unable to check her email on the yacht, which should feel dated in a world where almost every teenager seems inseparable from mobile tablets and smartphones, but at least to me, it doesn’t.
Johnson is good at creating convincing romantic tension, but she’s equally good at writing nuanced friendships between girls. I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside when the gorgeous girl – the rival character – turns out to be a lovely person, and Elsa is precisely that. On the other hand, Johnson doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that boys can and do get between good friends, and the novel ends with a bittersweet note: a friendship between girls can survive romantic rivalry, but it won’t remain exactly the same.
There isn’t much else that I can say without ruining the reading experience, but if you’re looking for some romantic brain chocolate to cheer up a rainy day and make you feel better about the world and the people in it, Girl at Sea would be a great choice.
Harperteen, paperback, 336 pp. ISBN: 0060541466