A new book by Australian author Cath Crowley, who also wrote Graffiti Moon and A Little Wanting Song, is always a treat because she is such an exceptional writer. In addition she is especially adept at portraying the emotional landscape of teens. This one has further appeal because it is centered around a bookstore, “Howling Books,” and the love of books and their words, a love shared by the protagonists.
Rachel Sweetie, 18, lost her brother Cal ten months before in a drowning incident. She, her brother, and mother had moved to the coastal town of Sea Ridge three years earlier to help out her Gran. Now Rachel is about to return to Gracetown, the suburb of Melbourne where she grew up. She just hasn’t been able to get over Cal’s death, and failed her last year of school (although before Cal’s death she was a straight-A student). She will stay with her favorite aunt, Rose, for a change of scene, in the hope it will aid healing her heart.
Before Rachel left Gracetown, she left a note for Henry Jones, whose family owns Howling Books. She inserted it into his favorite book in “The Letter Library.” This is a section of Howling Books where the books aren’t for customers to buy. Instead, as Rachel explains, “The idea is that they can circle words or phrase on the pages of their favorite books. They can write notes in the margins. They can leave letters for other people who’ve read the same books.” Henry’s dad calls it “a library of people.”
In the letter Rachel left for Henry, she told him she loved him. They had always been BFFs, but she realized she felt more, even though he was besotted by his new girlfriend Amy. She never heard back from him, and she was angry, hurt, and humiliated.
Now, back in Gracetown, her aunt gets her a job at Howling Books, much to Rachel’s horror. She will have to face Henry and his sister George every day, and they don’t even know yet that Cal is dead.
When Rachel finally tells Henry about Cal, she explains that it seemed especially unfair to her, not just that he died, but that before the accident, he was so excited about all the things he wanted to do in life and all he wanted to see. Now he would never realize any of it. Henry opined that one could also see it as Cal having gotten lucky in a way, because his last days seemed so beautiful to him, “filled with golden light”:
“Maybe he didn’t get screwed over by the universe. Maybe it was trying to cram everything in for him.”
“Not very scientific,” Rachel counters.
“‘Sometimes science isn’t enough. Sometimes you need the poets,’ he says…”
The two talk a lot about memory and souls and how the dead can stay alive through their stories. As Rachel comes to understand, “We are the books we read and the things we love. Cal is the ocean and the letters he left.” Cal will always be with her.
Meanwhile, all of them are also dealing with the repercussions of the possible sale of the bookshop, because it is failing financially in spite of a [small] coterie of faithful customers. Henry is devastated. He loves books, even though his girlfriend Amy wants him to do something with more prestige and more money. He tells Rachel why the store has been so important to him:
“Books are important. Words are important. Words matter, in fact. They’re not pointless, as you’ve suggested. If they were pointless, then they couldn’t start revolutions and they wouldn’t change history. If they were just words, we wouldn’t write songs or listen to them. We wouldn’t beg to be read to as kids. . . . . If they were just words, people wouldn’t fall in love because of them, feel bad because of them, ache because of them, and stop aching because of them….”
There is a third theme running through the story: that of sea monkeys. These are actually a kind of brine shrimp that grow really fast, but only if conditions are right. If not, they remain in dormant cysts for as long as it takes for things to get better: “And then, when things are good again, the life cycle keeps going.” You can see the metaphor here, even though Crowley is never so blunt as to mention it.
The story is told in alternate narration by Rachel and Henry, with intermittent excerpts from notes left in The Letter Library.
Evaluation: This is a touching, hopeful, and absorbing exploration of the different love that characterizes families, friends, and romances. It is also a paean to books and authors and words. In fact, I compiled quite a list of books I want to read that were mentioned in this one. There are also some side characters so appealing one hopes they get their own book one day. Cath Crowley’s books have a way of getting into your heart and staying there.
Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, and imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017