“Sea of Tranquility” is anything but tranquil.
The novel is filled with decades -– centuries even — of upheaval. War. Pandemics. Ponzi schemes. Survival. Another pandemic. Suicides. Violins. Supernatural events. And one of my favorites — time travel.
We begin in 1912 somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean and end 500 years later back on Earth. In between, we’ve visited many places, among them a couple of moon colonies. This telling line points to the time travel element:
“The present moment was beginning to seem like a nonsensical term.”
Full disclosure here: I don’t like to read dust-cover blurbs. Therefore, often I go blindly into my reading journey, as was the case for this book. A few chapters in, I thought we were to follow a particular character’s life. I was wrong. Instead, Mandel takes us on another character’s five-century quest to do the right thing, no matter how many rules it breaks.
The threads of hope and optimism and art wind throughout the narrative, as does a specific supernatural anomaly that involves a flash, a forest and a violin. Gaspery, Edwin, Mirella, Olive, Talia and Zoey are characters in our sights along the way.
The tale is told simply with lovely, rhythmic sentences — often clever, often poetic, often succinct:
“He loves watching the boats come in, steamships pulling into the harbor with an aura of Europe still clinging to their decks.” … “Sometimes you don’t know you’re going to throw a grenade until you’ve already pulled the pin.” … “The mouth of the overpass was a dark cave waiting to swallow them.” … “The sky was crowded with low-altitude airships, and in the distance, the falling-star lights of commuter aircraft streaked upward toward the colonies.” … “Imagine clouds of invisible pathogens drifting the the air, floating from table to table to table, swirling in the wake of passing servers.”
The book has received many accolades, including one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2022 as well as on his annual summer reading list; the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction nominee; one of Amazon’s 20 Best Books of 2022; the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction; and Pan Macmillan’s 32 best sci-fi books of 2023 and all-time.
According to Amazon.com, “Sea of Tranquility” is a New York Times bestseller and “one of the best books of the year” on lists compiled by The New York Times, NPR, USA Today, Esquire, Mother Jones and The Washington Post, to name a few.
Back to pandemics for a moment. (I’m writing this with a positive COVID test in my trash.) This Mandel tale was written in 2022 after COVID-19 reared its ugly head. But, for a fascinating pre-COVID tale, read her book, “Stations 11.” Penned in 2014, the book (also an HBO series) seems to foreshadow our 2020 selves. Some details are unnervingly similar.
Mandel truly has a handle on the subject of pandemics. Another favorite paragraph in “Sea of Tranquility” and one of the best descriptions of a pandemic I’ve ever read is this:
“Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrived in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorienting, the pandemic is far away, and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step.”
Later, in reference to the early days of SARS-12 in 2203, this conversation takes place:
“Never heard of it,” Gaspery says of the sickness. “It was one of our childhood immunizations,” says his co-worker Ephram.
Hopefully, sooner than later, that will be the case.
Phyllis Sigal began her journalism career in 1980 at The Times Leader in Martins Ferry, Ohio, as a reporter, and then served as a bureau chief, lifestyles editor, and managing editor during her tenure there. In 1998, she moved to The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register as design editor. In 2018, she became managing editor of Weelunk. Currently, she is retired but keeps her hand in the freelance world of writing and design. Traveling, eating great food (usually cooked by her husband Bruce Wheeler), reading, walking, doing yoga, and spending time with family are her favorite pastimes.
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