Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Published: Lake Union Publishing, March 2022
My Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Glendy Vanderah is an author I’ve been proudly championing from day one. Her debut Where the Forest Meets the Stars remains among my all-time favourites, and with her sophomore novel The Light Through the Leaves she proved herself to be more than a one-hit-wonder. The Oceanography of the Moon is her third release in as many years, and unfortunately my least favourite in the line. Although still a compelling and enjoyable read that I flew through, the deep emotional resonance I felt with her previous novels just wasn’t present in this one.
We follow 21-year old Riley Mays, living with her cousins on their Wisconsin-farm since a series of horrible events ten years ago took the lives of her mother and aunt. She now spends her days caring for her extraordinary adoptive brother Kiran, and indulging her personal fascination with nature, the moon and lunar oceans. Her fragile life’s balance is disturbed when a broken down car leaves best-selling novelist Vaugh Orr stranded just outside their property. Offering him a temporary place to stay, Riley and Vaughn quickly get to know each other, and it soon becomes clear that both are keeping secrets. Was it truly a coincidental car-breakdown that lead Vaughn to her property? Or have their lives crossed paths long before already…?
Clearly constructed from the same building blocks as her previous works, The Oceanography of the Moon offers much of what I’ve come to expect from a Vanderah novel; a melancholic yet hopeful story of family bonds and tragedy, carried by a cast of livid characters, and sprinkled with a little dash of mystery. The authors fascination with biology, nature, genetics, and themes of nature-vs-nurture that made me love her books so much, also make a reappearance here.
The final structure that came from these building blocks however, didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Vanderah’s novels are all about that deep connection with-, and love for, her protagonists to me. All of them have complex and troubled pasts, that may not be obvious from page one, but their stories never hinged around the mystery of that. The Oceanography places the mystery-aspect much more central, and sacrifices some of the character work to do so. Characters would go out of their way to speak in vague terms about certain events even within their private thoughts, as if aware the reader was listening. It felt painfully clear that this was for the benefit of preserving the mystery for the reader, and it often shattered my immersion. When thinking back on Where the Forest Meets the Stars, I could almost forget that Joanna and Gabe are characters in a book, and picture them as real people. Riley and Vaughn’s voices seemed so scripted and aware of the reader that they never reached even close to that level.
Their lack of real-ness bleeds over into other aspects of the novel as well. The plot was very contrived yet still somehow predictable. Dialogue felt overwritten and at times cheesy, which all added to my ultimate inability to feel for the protagonists, or be on board with their romance. Where the authors previous written relationships felt very mature and came from a place of support and emotional healing, this one did not. There was a feeling of inequality about it that I couldn’t shake, and left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. *for more details, see the spoiler section below.
Overall there were many potentially powerful themes, metaphors and messages included in Riley and Vaughns story. Unfortunately, the level of polish and development I know Vanderah is capable of wasn’t there. Too many mixed metaphors and motifs that needed more depth lead me to speculate that perhaps there was some publishers-involvement pushing for a one-book-a-year-schedule. The core of greatness was present, and I’m sure that given adequate time, her next novel will be another favourite.
Many thanks to Lake Union Press for providing me with an early copy in exchange for an honest review. The Oceanography of the Moon is out on March 22nd.
*Mild spoilers below:
Many aspects of Vaughn and Riley’s relationship felt very inequal to me. I don’t have a problem with age-gaps (21 vs 29) when both parties feel evenly matched. However Vaughn read much older, and Riley much younger than their actual age, emphasizing the difference. Then there is the inequality of information (Vaughn lying and withholding information from Riley), and the fact that he happens to be rich, famous and much more sexually experienced than her. That's where the whole thing becomes really uncomfortable for me. The reveal that the older party knew the younger party as a child however is where it truly becomes creepy to me, even if there were absolutely no feelings present back then.