My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Length: 352 pages
Release date: 12 July 2018
Precious is spending an awkward August in an Algarve villa while her parents fight dirty over an expensive divorce. When she misses her plane home, Precious finds herself on the run along the coast of Portugal. Along the way she meets Harry, travelling Europe before he starts uni. But Precious and her problems are the last thing Harry needs as he struggles to shake off the ghost of his drowned father and get back to something resembling a life.
As it turns out, Precious is EXACTLY what Harry needs. Until the complicated but dreamy Nathan shows up, and matters take a darker turn …
I am Precious Silva, hear me squeak.
Girl at Sea reads much like an improved version of fellow 2018 YA contemporary The Truth and Lies of Ella Black. Both feature rich sixth formers experiencing culture (and status) shock in an exotic Portuguese-speaking location as they learn to cope with real life while disentangling dark secrets related to their parents. The premise isn’t really for me, but readers who enjoyed Ella Black will likely take to Girl at Sea as well.
The main thing about Girl at Sea is that although it ends as a pretty strong, hard-fought coming of age tale, the beginning is grating. I was seriously contemplating DNF’ing as my reading pace stalled to a standstill in the opening chapters. They’re intentionally cryptic and filled with a bunch of bland setup, almost all of which escapes memory. You have rich girl Precious Silva and rich boy Nathan Payne who both stink of entitlement and daddy issues.
Along for the ride is Harry Temple, a less conspicuously rich (but still well-off) boy with a mountain’s worth of, you guessed it, daddy issues. At the beginning, it’s hard to care about any of their problems thanks to how rapidly Girl at Sea dumps them at us without pausing to flesh out the characters.
Eventually I forced myself to get through the slog, and to my surprise, the book took a significant upturn around the 100-page mark. Pieces started to fall together as the three protagonists’ paths crossed. The ‘thriller’ part of the book began to come into play. The chemistry between Precious, Harry and Nathan made their interactions much better than the sum of their parts. Suddenly, a book where the most interesting thing was teenagers making dumb mistakes turned into a wacky, fun romp through the picturesque Algarve, fuelled by highish-stakes drama.
If, of course, you can make it through the slow start.
All three main characters come into their own over the course of their novel, going from unlikeable to tolerable to worth rooting for. The rotating POV really helps because it lets you see the wildly contrasting perspectives of two or three people on the same event, often revealing misunderstandings that are painful to read. In the less enjoyable bits, it also means that you only have to stick with a character for a few pages if you’re getting annoyed at them. Which might happen a lot in the first half, and sporadically afterwards.
I’m hesitant to say this, because I’m typically all for nuanced grey characters, but I feel that Girl at Sea would have been stronger with (a) defined villain(s). Several reprehensible people are present who perform deeds that cross the line from dickish to criminal, but they’re never treated as ‘bad guys’, and the book ends on a semi-open note that fails to resolve much of anything beyond its protagonists’ internal growth. I thought there would be an epilogue but nope, the next page went immediately to an author’s note on background information. An epilogue giving the lowdown on what happened after the last scene would have been appreciated.
Personally speaking, the humour falls a bit flat. There’s a lot of the rich people doing dumb things kind of slapstick comedy; if you like that, more power to you. On the other hand I quite liked Lucy Courtenay’s integration of Portuguese lore, especially her quirky use of King Sebastian, which gradually makes more sense as the story unfolds. Her use of various Algarve locations was also on point–I’ve never been, but Girl at Sea makes me want to visit.
Overall, this is a nice summer read provided that you can get past the confusing opening chapters. For better or for worse, Lucy Courtenay’s characters sound like exactly what they are: teenagers learning the hard way that whatever their ‘this’ is, there’s more to life than this.
*Thanks to Hachette Children’s Group and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*