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 ... It’s the intricate design of this tale—which Gaige pilots expertly—and its eloquent revelations about the inner workings of the Partlow’s relationship that distinguish Sea Wife, even as the voyage itself (in this case clinging to the coast of Central and South American, into the Caribbean) charts the familiar course of every sea narrative ever written ... To Gaige’s credit, the final resolution of the Partlow’s differences is achieved in a fashion that even the most sharp-eyed reader won’t be able to spot, looming in the distance.
... stunning ... Like an expert concierge, Gaige maps two journeys for readers—one into the distant past, leading us to difficult answers to Juliet’s questions, and the other following the family’s ambitious sailing expedition aboard a 44-foot boat ... The dysfunction makes for entertaining fiction. In fact, it made me feel smugly perky about the state of my own marriage ... Gaige has been towing you to tragedy with the graceful crawl of a poet and the motorboat intensity of a suspense author. And yet, when you find yourself at the deep end of this book, gasping for breath, you will still be shocked by what you find at the bottom ... I had one cantankerous quibble with Sea Wife: I wished Gaige had used quotation marks around her characters’ dialogue. Without them, it’s easy to lose your bearings—but maybe that’s the point of this book. Gaige tells the story of a family adrift, spun so thoroughly and vigorously out of their comfort zone that they eventually lose sight of the horizon. Finding out how—and whether—they find their way is worth some personal discombobulation, and it makes you appreciate the firm, familiar ground under your feet.
Gaige here fractures a single, suspenseful plot into multiple parts. In Sea Wife, she cuts between two first-person narratives, each amplifying and complicating the other ... Cutting between storylines generates narrative suspense ... It also allows for the interplay of two distinct voices and sensibilities ... The novel deftly grafts narrative mystery—what happened on that boat? What painful childhood memory is Juliet avoiding?—onto a sharp examination of domesticity ... Michael feels a victim, aggrieved against liberal culture ... This is all a bit heavy-handed. Trump has drawn latent white-male bitterness into the open, but not so suddenly or unexpectedly as Gaige suggests. Indeed, the novel thinks about politics most interestingly within Juliet’s section, where it’s largely subtext ... Gaige is a superb maritime writer. She writes beautifully about water and sky ... she makes sailing seem both an existential drama (when a storm hits, it’s like Lear on the heath) and a complex technical enterprise ... Americans dream of endless reinvention. Sea Wife shows the impossibility of such a dream[.]
What unfolds is a kind of running argument, as Juliet’s remorseful and contemplative account is interrupted by Michael’s boisterous, in-the-moment impressions. Both have wonders and calamities to relate ... Each drama is plentifully conceived on its own terms, but there’s a powerful cumulative effect as the strain and isolation lay bare the heart of their marital trouble ... At its best, Sea Wife achieves a lovely balance between the real and the metaphoric ... Somewhat late in the novel, Ms. Gaige introduces two plot wrinkles ... The additions take away from the book’s symmetry and momentum, and they force Ms. Gaige to spend a lot of time tying up loose ends. What readers will remember instead are the charged images of Juliet and Michael sailing with their kids toward foreign coordinates, forced to depend on each other to stay afloat.
With taut prose and well-paced action, Sea Wife provides an excellent escape from reality while exposing universal truths about marriage, motherhood and childhood trauma ... brilliant, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.
... [Gaige] continues to build on some of the themes she has explored in her prior work, all while giving readers a timely narrative about the personal repercussions of the Trump era ... full of genuinely nail-biting descriptions of storms at sea ... also infused with tender descriptions of the narrators’ children and their evocative surroundings ... what will stick with me are Gaige’s astute observations on balancing personal identity with one’s role in a family, of negotiating marriage and parenthood, of contending with the demons of one’s past or setting them aside in order to simply get through the day ... At a time when many readers might be ready to jettison their own circumstances and set sail (at least in their imaginations), Sea Wife comes along at just the right moment.
... gives a multilayered perspective on the ill-fated voyage. From the challenges of two people finding themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum to Juliet’s depression, which leads her to give up on her dissertation, and the challenges of life at sea, this surprising novel is stunning and deep.
This book’s unusual structure is effective once you figure out what Gaige is up to. There are multiple layers to explore for contemporary literary scholars or a committed book club, as Gaige...has much to say about the struggles and complexities of marriage, particularly in our current political and cultural climate.
Gaige is well-suited for this sort of psychological exploration: Her previous novel, Schroder... smartly chronicled the irrationality that can consume a marital split. And the seafaring sections are gripping, as the family’s lives are literally tempest-tossed. Yet the novel is also a ship carrying a lot of ballast, as Gaige sometimes strains to keep the couple’s parrying going: spats, riffs on parenting, literary analysis, and a late-breaking murder mystery that feels tacked-on. None of which sinks the story, but it does dampen its power ... A powerful if sometimes wayward take on a marriage on the rocks.
... [a] splendid, wrenching novel ... Gaige balances the piecemeal explanations of Michael’s involvement with a profound depiction of the weight of depression and the pains of a complicated relationship. Every element of this impressive novel clicks into a dazzling, heartbreaking whole.