“Sea Wife” is a moody and compelling literary novel about the hidden depths of a marriage. It nods to, but does not fully embrace, the conventions of suspense. For instance, we readers know from the opening pages that something has happened to Michael Partlow, the husband of the pair. The tip-off is that his wife, Julia Partlow, is back on dry land — indeed, taking refuge on the floor of a bedroom closet — trying to steel herself to leave their house in Connecticut: “If I were to go out, to start walking around and seeing people again and going to the grocery store and getting on with it, invariably what someone would ask me is, Do you wish you’d never gone?” That’s not the “Didja have fun?” type of inquiry that a sojourn at sea usually incites.
Gaige was inspired to write “Sea Wife” after reading about the real-life Coast Guard rescue of the Rebel Heart in 2014. The sailors — a married couple with two daughters, ages 1 and 3 — were crossing the South Pacific when their boat began taking on water. The family survived, although the Rebel Heart was lost at sea and controversy ensued over the parents’ foolhardiness in taking their young children along on this adventure.
In her novel, Gaige sets out to explore the motivations that could make a such voyage seem appealing, even necessary. The Partlows’ flat marriage, sorely in need of a bolstering gust of wind, is a big factor, bolstered by Michael’s conservative streak, which prizes a nostalgic ideal of manliness and familial self-reliance: “We say we want kids to be joyful/unmaterialistic/resilient. That’s what sailing kids are like. They climb masts and can correctly identify plant life. . . . They don’t sit around ranking one kind of life against another. 71% of the earth is ocean. These kids literally cannot believe they are the center of the world. Because where would that be exactly?”
That’s Michael speaking from the pages of the log of the yacht, Julia (the name he gave the boat as a public gesture of devotion to his wife). Why Michael can speak for himself only via those pages is a question that remains unresolved until the final section of the novel. Julia’s account, which roams from her stricken present to the early days of the couple’s relationship, drives the story in tandem. There are also a few interjections by the couple’s young children, as well as by the sailors they occasionally encounter on the open seas, such as this fellow “sea wife” who ominously cautions Julia that “marriages have failure points, just like boats. . . . If you would rather not know the failure points . . . do not go sailing.”
It’s the intricate design of this tale — which Gaige pilots expertly — and its eloquent revelations about the inner workings of the Partlows’ relationship that distinguish “Sea Wife,” even as the voyage itself (in this case clinging to the coast of Central and South America, into the Caribbean) charts the familiar course of every sea narrative ever written from “The Odyssey” to “Kon-tiki.” There are encounters with indigenous peoples, a respite at fragrant Lotus Land-type islands, a few tense moments at sea involving nautical troubles and the caprice of Mother Nature, and, then, the Perfect Storm.
Gaige — author of three other novels — evocatively renders both the shifting interior world of the Partlows and the ever-changing waterscape that surrounds the family. For Michael, oppressed by his white-collar job, that empty vastness is liberation; for Julia, long depressed by her inability to finish her dissertation in modern poetry, the watery void is what T.S. Eliot would call an “objective correlative” to her state of mind. Here’s Julia describing the psychic impact of the yacht’s venture into open water:
“For a while, privately I’d wondered if who I’d become in recent years — skeptical, anxious, angry — was who I really was, or rather the warped effect of a deforming history. . . . But at sea, . . . I had nothing keeping me from answering that question. . . . There was only more and more horizon, empty in every direction . . . a vista without mediation — pure, terrifying selfhood.”
To Gaige’s credit, the final resolution of the Partlows’ differences is achieved in a fashion that even the most sharp-eyed reader won’t be able to spot, looming in the distance.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Amity Gaige
Knopf. 288pp. $26.95