My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length: 273 pages
Release date: 30 August 2016
This is a love story.
It’s the story of Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets.
It’s the story of Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie. They were best friends once, before Rachel moved to the sea.
Now, she’s back, working at the bookstore, grieving for her brother Cal and looking for the future in the books people love, and the words they leave behind.
“We are the books we read and the things we love. Cal is the ocean and the letters he left. Our ghosts hide in the things we leave behind.”
The Academy loves giving Oscars to movies about actors, so it should be no surprise that Words in Deep Blue comes along as an acclaimed novel about reading. After all, we write about what we know, and writers as a whole have more expertise in books than anything else. Words in Deep Blue‘s premise of an independent bookstore with a dedicated Letter Library where visitors can annotate and leave letters in books as they please is appropriately charming, making it a suitable old-fashioned backdrop to an old-fashioned love story.
It’s one of the few YA contemporaries that takes place in Australia, but at heart the story is universal: Boy meets girl. Girl moves far away. Years later, girl returns, and old feelings are rekindled despite better judgment. Where the leads live or why they’ve suddenly been reunited doesn’t matter that much at the end of the day; if you want to enjoy the romance, you will.
Personally, I thought it was alright, and not much more or less than that. Certain points are executed better than others, but Cath Crowley hasn’t made any choices that are so brilliant or so terrible that the good and the bad don’t balance each other out. The good bits include the Letter Library concept, the everyday realism, and pacing. The bad bits include most characterisation and the non-romance parts of the plot. Words in Deep Blue goes by very quickly, and I feel it was too short to leave me with strong feelings in either direction.
The concept of Howling Books and the Letter Library is the best-handled part of the novel. For one, it allows chapters to be interspersed by letters that may be written by the main characters or by completely unrelated people, just as a glimpse into the author’s rendition of how such an idea might work in reality. There were quite a few of these conversations/letters that are particularly enjoyable, so don’t skip them, even though most of them aren’t necessary to understand the storyline.
The other great thing about Howling Books is that Crowley doesn’t shy away from the reality that most indie bookstores are on their last legs. When I first opened Words in Deep Blue, my gut reaction was to question how the Joneses’ family business was still alive. I thought its financial peril would be brushed aside, or neatly rejected in an underdog story. It wasn’t. As much as Henry, George and their parents’ lives have been shaped by Howling Books, they all have to deal with the threat of shutting down in ways faithful to real life. Even if it’s a little underwhelming, I like the resolution that the bookstore receives in the end.
Sadly, I don’t find the characters compelling enough to elevate the story to the next level. Most of the drama is driven by basic misunderstandings when characters are unable/unwilling to convey simple information to each other. As you can imagine, this becomes rather annoying for the reader. Rachel is hard to sympathise with when she refuses to tell anyone about the tragedy of her brother’s death yet expects everyone to treat her like they already know, becoming irritated whenever they’re not totally sensitive towards her problems.
Elsewhere, Amy is the Quintessential Bitchy Ex who only cares about herself and runs at the first piece of ass she sees at every chance, only to come crawling back a few months later when that fling doesn’t work out (surprise, surprise). Henry is super attracted to Amy and thinks she’s his soulmate at first because…I don’t know. I just don’t know. Never has she showed a single likeable quality, nor does Henry’s own POV tell us what he sees in this girl. Yes, I’m aware such excuses for human beings exist, but most of them have at least some sort of redeeming quality, even if it’s just good looks, that makes them initially attractive.
I admit that I feel a little sorry for Amy, as in I feel sorry for how she’s written, because she’s relegated to being the boogeyman of the romance novel who receives no character development. There’ll be no HEA for this girl, unfortunately; she’ll be left to the dumpster with all the other mean girls of YA. Same with Greg Smith, the chap she dumps Henry for–sure, he’s a piece of work, but only because the author chose to make him so. I guess they deserve each other.
The side plot with George and Martin is marginally more interesting than The Amorous Adventures of Awful Amy, but still not enough to go beyond “meh”. And that’s my reaction to this book when all’s said and done, really. It was okay, but I won’t be missing it soon.
*Thanks to Hodder Children’s Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*