Title: Distant Waves: A Novel of the Titanic
Author: Suzanne Weyn
Length: 330 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Following the death of their father, Jane Taylor and her four sisters grows up in an unconventional spiritualist town in New York with their medium mother. Mimi, the eldest, and Jane, eager to get a taste of the real world, take a spontaneous and unsupervised trip to New York City after the revelation of a family secret. While there, Jane meets her hero Nikola Tesla and Mimi gets swept up in the glamorous world of high society. The consequences of this brief trip will turn all the Taylor girls’ lives upside-down, however, because the next April they all find themselves as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
Distant Waves is old-school YA in that it is, clearly, aimed at a slightly younger set despite the MC’s romance and written in a more informational (educational?) style than most YA historical fiction tends to be. The prose and dialogue is slightly stilted in order to introduce readers to historical figures and events of note, and there are plenty of them (most notably Nikola Tesla) to be had. And if the writing style didn’t give it away, the publisher–Scholastic–would.
That said, there’s nothing remarkable one way or the other in this book. The writing wasn’t bad, by any means, and the style was fine with me because I could tell that I, in my twenties and with plenty of background knowledge about the time period, was not the target audience. That’s tweens or young teens being newly-introduced to the specifics of the early twentieth century and/or the sinking of the Titanic.
Oops. Spoiler alert!
Despite its title, Distant Waves isn’t exactly a “novel of the Titanic,” either. That didn’t bother me, personally. There’s only so much drama and plot to be gleaned from a four-day sea voyage that will end in disaster…not that Ms. Weyn doesn’t try to glean every little bit of what she can, but she had already established her characters well before they climbed on board. To me, it’s really better to tell the real stories, or stories based on them, in a case like this. There were, after all, more than 1500 men, women, and children–most of them poor and trapped in steerage–who died in the frigid North Atlantic that night.
Character development is neither the strong-point nor the focal point of this novel. Mimi, the eldest Taylor girl, rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning–yes, even when she’s a six-year-old!–and never improved. Jane is predictably bland. The twins are strange and ethereal and Blythe, the youngest, is excitable and overconfident. Other than the haughty and self-centered Mimi, there was nothing wrong with any of them, and I did get a sense of how the sisters cared for each other. But none of them are all that deep. What you see is what you get. That also goes for the other original character, Thad. He just isn’t memorable.
You know what’s really strange to me? The fact that authors who write about families of four or five sisters seem to make the second-born sister the narrator/MC. I’m sure there are exceptions, but think about it. Pride and Prejudice? Elizabeth. Little Women? Jo. Wildwood Dancing? Jena. And again here, with Jane. Why is that, I wonder?
Spiritualism plays a big role in the book, too. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what the author wants readers to think about the paranormal angle; after all, the narrator Jane doesn’t know what to think of it herself. It seems to be up to every individual to decide how to interpret what happens. There is a lot of emphasis placed on various people predicting the sinking in some way, and of course we readers know that they’re right–and of course everyone in the novel dismisses their predictions. Dramatic irony is one thing, but I prefer it to be a bit more subtle than it is here. There’s also an element of fantasy (?) that surrounds the actual sinking in this story, and I really did not like that. (To Ms. Weyn’s credit, she admits that it’s completely made-up in the Author’s Note at the end.) She did skip out on describing the gruesome, unpleasant/frightening details of the sinking; that, I didn’t mind at all.
I would much rather use Distant Waves to introduce a curious young person to the Titanic story (though Dear America’s Titanic diary would be an even better choice, tbh) than the James Cameron movie. There is a love story involved–a bit of instalove, I’m sad to say–but it is, at least, not merely a bland Romeo-and-Juliet style “epic” romance, and the narrative never feels like it’s taking advantage of the real tragedy for its own sake.
Props to the author for including rather detailed historical information about the real-life figures in the book at the end, too. (Though I’m not sure how I feel about the details she gave about Abraham Lincoln. Still…there’s so much misinformation about Lincoln floating around that it can’t really do much harm, can it?)
Overall, I don’t regret reading Distant Waves or spending a whopping one dollar at the bookstore, either. It was a quick and somewhat interesting little book, albeit not one I think I’ll remember very well. And, um, it does have a lovely cover…?