Review: Dryland by Sara Jaffe

Dryland book coverI read this quiet book in just two days, which says something because my reading pace has slowed to a crawl at this point (I’m still 14 whole books behind on my Goodreads challenge).

It’s 1992 and Julie is a slightly lost fifteen-year-old who doesn’t really like anything. Her best friend, Erika, is far more engaged in more typical teenage pursuits than Julie, like boys. Julie’s older brother was a highly competitive swimmer who almost qualified for the Olympics and disappeared from Julie’s life to move to Germany afterward. It’s not clear that she technically misses him, but it is clear that his leaving has unmoored her. She follows Erika around for lack of anything better to do—hitting the arts and crafts market, watching skater boys, and doing yearbook at school. At yearbook, she meets a couple of other girls, Alexis and Melanie. Alexis seems to take a shine to Julie, offering her snacks and inviting her to join the swim team. Early in the book, she also meets Ben, an old friend of her brother.

Julie does join the swim team and Erika joins with her. But Julie, ever-unmotivated, struggles in practices. She can’t seem to keep going and randomly stops in the middle of her swims. Erika, who’s got a crush on one of the other swimmers, talks her into going to some parties. All Julie wants to do is leave, but then things get surprising and complicated with Alexis. She hangs out some with Ben, who never comes across as a creepy older guy for reasons that become clear later and actually seems to fill a role her brother might have formerly filled.

Throughout the novel, I wondered if she’d ever find out what was up with her brother, if she’d get over whatever was keeping her from trying at swimming, and what would happen with Alexis. Because the possible lesbian overtones are there from the beginning, though it’s clear to the reader that nothing is really clear to Julie.

The book does a few interesting things, craft-wise. For one, there are no chapters. And Jaffe doesn’t present dialogue in the conventional way. It appears without quote marks, often embedded in paragraphs. This gives the entire story a stream-of-consciousness feel (though I’m not saying it goes far enough to actually be stream-of-consciousness). The prose is subtle, lyrical, and full of great imagery. It’s also set in Portland, Oregon, which adds a dreary backdrop to the story (which sets the mood perfectly).

I recommend this to anyone who wants a thoughtful coming-of-age story. It will especially appeal to older readers who remember the early 90s, but younger readers will also appreciate its rawness and honesty.