(Image from Barnes & Noble)
When her husband announces—out of the blue—that he's accepted a new job outside the city, it throws Lainie Smith Morris' life into a tailspin. A consummate New Yorker, she can't imagine leaving Manhattan for some boring, land-locked suburban town. The energy of the city thrums through her veins, feeding her soul like her apartment's view of the Hudson River inspires the seascapes that have brought her notoriety as an up-and-coming artist. Lainie knows how important it is for her husband, an orthopedic surgeon who grew up on an upstate dairy farm, to prove that he's "made it," but she can't help resenting a move that will tear her away from the life she loves.
To keep the peace, Lainie moves to Elliot, New Jersey, with her husband, four children, and the kids' nanny. It doesn't take long for her to feel completely intimidated by the snooty, image-obsessed suburbanites who now surround her. Even the local art community seems to be snubbing her, with her pedestrian little collages. Although she soaks herself in the town pool every chance she gets, Lainie feels like a fish out of water—no matter how hard she flaps her fins, she's just not making any headway. As Charles becomes increasingly hostile over his wife's apparent refusal to fit in, Lainie feels hurt, angry, and lost.
Enter Jess Howard. A beautiful, wealthy socialite, Jess is not thrilled to find that Lainie Smith Morris—of all people—has moved to Elliot. Having spent summers in Cape May together as teenagers, Jess has always been envious of Lainie's passive-aggressive charm and talent. Although she would love to watch Lainie continue to flounder in Elliot society, she takes pity on her old rival. Taking Lainie and her children on as charity projects gives Jess a sense of satisfaction—as does seducing Lainie's husband.
As Jess becomes more and more entrenched in the Morris Family's drama, Lainie finds herself slowly suffocating. Between the daily pressure of being married to an ambitious doctor, raising four demanding children, and trying to further her art career while doing her best not to embarrass herself every time she steps outside her front door, Lainie feels strangled. Can she ever find balance and a sense of peace for herself? Or will she slowly dry up and wither away, like a selkie who sheds its true identity to live, always trapped and smothered, on the land?
The premise behind Between the Tides, a debut novel by Susannah Marren, sounds so innocuous that it's difficult to describe why I found almost everything about the story so repugnant. Let's start with the characters. With the exception of some of the kids, every single one of Marren's stereotypical cast members is selfish, immature, unsympathetic and decidedly unlikable. The adults are indulgent and/or neglectful parents; cruel and/or disloyal spouses; as well as self-absorbed and/or conniving people. Lainie is especially ridiculous—she leaves the care of her children to the nanny or to 12-year-old Matilde, then whines (constantly) about how little time motherhood gives her to pursue her real passion: art. While any wife/mother can relate to feeling exhausted and used-up by her family at times, Between the Tides takes the theme to an extreme level, making the whole novel feel like an angry feminist rant against marriage/motherhood ("Husbands are husbands, placate them as best you can. Children are the glue; cherish them and comfort yourself for their benefit." ). The cluttered prose adds to the problem. Not only does Marren use very stilted dialogue, bogged down by the overuse of conversation tags ("Please pass the salt, Carl."; "I'd be happy to, Stephanie." "Thank you, Carl." "Oh, Stephanie, you're so welcome."), but the writing never feels very dynamic. Overall, the story is dark, depressing, and dull. I finished the novel because I was promised a doozy of a surprise ending. It didn't surprise me, but what happened and how flippantly the characters reacted did make me say, "What in the world?" For me, the odd finale just reinforced my dislike of Between the Tides.
I know I'm being a serious Negative Nelly here (Between the Tides actually gets pretty good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads; maybe it's just me who hated it ...), so I'll tell you what I did like about the book: the whole selkie thing gave it a unique spin that felt almost like magical realism. It wasn't developed as much as it could have been, but it was an interesting element in an otherwise unpleasant novel.
(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. You?)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for strong language, sexual content, violence, and depictions of the illegal use of prescription drugs