The Veins of the Ocean, by Patricia Engel

veinsoftheoceanTitle: The Veins of the Ocean

Author: Engel, Patricia (Author’s Website)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Bibliographic: Grove Press, 320, Hardcover List Price $25.00, Paperback List Price $17.00, Audiobook List Price $27.99, Audiobook CD List Price $29.99, ISBNs 9780802124890, 9780802189998, 9780802126740, 9781534608092

Publication Date: May 3, 2016

Rating: Stars of Five for Quality/♥♥♡♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Character-driven, atmospheric, reflective, descriptive, lyrical

Why I picked it up: Thanks to the 2016 presidential election results, I found myself growing grim about the mouth, bringing up the rear of every funeral I met, and knowing a damp drizzly November in my soul. It was high time to get to sea as soon as I could.

S.I.A.S.: Reina struggles to come to terms with her family’s legacy, while Nesto struggles to come to terms with his family’s present.

Summary: When Carlos was a baby, his father Hector came to believe that his wife was unfaithful, so he did the only thing he could: he dropped Carlos off of a bridge and into the Atlantic Ocean. Carlos was saved from the sea by a bystander who leapt in after him. Hector was sent to prison, where he eventually slit his own throat rather than face a life sentence. As an adult, Carlos hears that his girlfriend, Isabella, has been unfaithful to him, and so he throws her daughter off the same bridge into the same ocean. Isabella’s daughter isn’t so lucky as Carlos was.

Carlos is sentenced to death and placed in solitary confinement for his own safety. His mother writes him off as a lost cause, and so soon his only link with the outside world is through his sister, Reina. She visits him faithfully every Saturday and Sunday for seven years, until one day she receives word that he’s committed suicide, like their father before him. Reina and Carlos’s mother decides to move north to Orlando to be with her latest beau, and so with nothing to keep her in Miami, Reina heads south, settling in the Florida Keys.

She meets a man named Nesto, a Cuban expatriate who couldn’t stand living in his homeland but couldn’t bear to live too far from where his children live. He has been struggling to bring his children to America, and goes back to Cuba to visit them whenever possible.

As Nesto and Reina come to belong more fully to each other, the combined weight of their broken families forces them to make difficult choices. Through it all, they rely on the sea.

Evaluation:  This is a beautifully written book. It took me a little while to get into, because of my own personal mood when I picked it up, but once it hooked me the language just kind of swept me away. Unlike in some lyrical literary fiction, there is absolutely a plot to this book, but the plot isn’t really the point nearly as much as the characters’ thoughts and feelings are.

Reina was very well-developed, and all of the choices she made were in line with her character and all the other choices she made. I really felt bad for her, considering that she was the one who impulsively told her brother that he was being cheated on  — not true — and that she spent so long trying to atone for the horrible situation she believed herself to be responsible for. I really, really enjoyed her ending, and seeing her come to terms with her new situation was very rewarding. I liked that, with Nesto, she made a different choice than she had in the past. It’s not quite happily-ever-after, but I think she’s getting there.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to fans of literary fiction, especially fans of literary fiction who are looking to read more books by POC authors. I would probably recommend it to book clubs, because there is a lot to discuss here. I also think, given the setting, it would make for very good beach reading for people who don’t enjoy fluff on their vacations.

Significance: This isn’t an overly popular book, but it has consistently high reviews in all the usual outlets (professional and social media).

Readalikes: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay. Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique. The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Reina have such a hard time believing that the dolphins are better off in captivity? Do you agree with her or with the rest of the staff? Why are the rest of the staff so determined to believe it?
  2. On page 128, Reina says that “if Nesto is to know me at all, he has to know that I am my brother’s crime. I am that baby’s murder.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree? How has her identity changed in the wake of Carlos’s imprisonment? His death?
  3. Why is Yanai so afraid to leave Cuba? Why was Nesto able to do it, in the end?
  4. Do you see parallels between Carlos and Reina’s relationship and Sandro and Camilla’s relationship? How does Reina’s family compare to Nesto’s?
  5. On page 84, Reina says that “making friends with danger is the only way to survive.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Lists and Awards:  None.

Professional Reviews:  Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. New York Times. San Francisco Gate. National Book Review.

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