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Review: Tides by Betsy Cornwell

by Betsy Cornwell

When Noah scores an internship at the Marine Science Research Center, he is thrilled. The director is one of his heroes. He and his sister, Lo, move in with their grandmother for the summer. Soon, Noah befriends one of the locals, a pretty dark-haired girl named Mara. But Mara's not just any teenager – she is a selkie, a seal that can transform into a human by removing her skin. She's not the only one, either; she lives with her pod in the ocean surrounding the islands. Five years ago,a member of the pod disappeared, and ever since their leader has insisted the selkies stay away from humans. But Mara, insatiably curious about the human world and attracted to Noah, just can't stay away.

This book throws a lot of teen issues into the narrative: dealing with loss after a loved one disappears, bulimia/eating disorders, same-sex relationships, and the usual range of coming of age angst and first relationship drama. Even human trafficking makes a sort of appearance. Trouble is, there's so much being thrown at the reader that not everything is explored adequately. For example, early on in the book it is revealed that the grandmother is in a committed relationship with a younger woman. Her grandchildren just smile and nod and say, “Oh, I'm glad you're not lonely.” Granted, maybe kids are more mature these days, but the fact that neither child was like, “But what about Grandpa?” or “How could you keep such a secret from us?” just didn't feel realistic. In fact, I was hoping that at some point the grandmother would deal with her relationship with her husband, especially after it was revealed that she and the woman had been in love since their teens. Did she marry her husband so that she could travel the world, and if not, how did she feel about him? What was their relationship like? If he was essentially a ticket out of town, why aren't the grandkids questioning this? But no, the story skips right over the grandmother's life from the day she leaves the islands until her return, forty years later. Similarly, the story wants to make a statement about teenage body image, but it is done only in broad strokes. Lo binges and purges, and feels bad about her self-image. It's established early on that the grandmother was once a model – was this a factor? Does Lo feel uncomfortable about being adopted and not resembling the other members of her family? Her psychology is underdeveloped, which is disappointing.

Anyway. It felt like the book was constantly throwing ideas out and not following through, which I found distracting. The core selkie mythology was intriguing, and I enjoyed the slight alterations to the selkie mythology depending on which narrator told the story. The selkie Mara views marriage as a horrible thing that destroys lives, the inevitable result when a fisherman forces a selkie to follow his wishes by stealing her seal-skin. Noah's grandmother, on the other hand, tells bittersweet fairy tales where the selkie gains her freedom but loses the love of her daughter. But the mythology is constantly being crowded out by everything else crammed in, so I ended up finding the book tedious.

I just realized that I really haven't talked about the main characters, Noah and Mara. I guess that's because I didn't find them all that interesting. I'll try, though. Noah is a geeky sort of guy. He's awkward around girls, but smart and devoted to understanding marine science. Yet he also accepts the reality of selkies without question, and their existence in stride. I honestly thought he was a bit too full of contradictions to be realistic. Mara's a curious, bright girl who loves her pod but is also curious about the human world. She is easily angered and confident. She's likable enough, I guess, but I never really warmed to her.

I'm not sure who the intended audience of this book is. It's written so simply that I had assumed it was meant for a middle school reader, but the themes and darkness of the final chapters seems geared more toward an older reader. The book definitely wasn't for me – there's just too many messages that never quite come together.

2.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Tides, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha is on a break until August 14th...
2011: News? Eat, Pray, Love and Wikipedia Shenanigans
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
2008: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson


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