Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake


The Larkin family isn’t just lucky—they persevere. At least that’s what Violet and her younger brother, Sam, were always told. When the Lyric sank off the coast of Maine, their great-great-great-grandmother didn’t drown like the rest of the passengers. No, Fidelia swam to shore, fell in love, and founded Lyric, Maine, the town Violet and Sam returned to every summer.

But wrecks seem to run in the family. Tall, funny, musical Violet can’t stop partying with the wrong people. And, one beautiful summer day, brilliant, sensitive Sam attempts to take his own life.

Shipped back to Lyric while Sam is in treatment, Violet is haunted by her family’s missing piece – the lost shipwreck she and Sam dreamed of discovering when they were children. Desperate to make amends, Violet embarks on a wildly ambitious mission: locate the Lyric, lain hidden in a watery grave for over a century.

She finds a fellow wreck hunter in Liv Stone, an amateur local historian whose sparkling intelligence and guarded gray eyes make Violet ache in an exhilarating new way. Whether or not they find the Lyric, the journey Violet takes-and the bridges she builds along the way-may be the start of something like survival.

RATING: ☆★☆★

Reading The Last Poets of the Sea felt comforting in a way that defies words. It felt like a hug, if a hug were a book. It lingered in the air, like summer thunder, long after I turned the last page, beaming calmly into all my darkest corners, and the thought of it still warms me, like a candle flame held safe against the whipping sea wind.

You don’t wanna miss this book!

So, what’s it about?

Violet Larkin’s family lived in a state where the ground always seemed to be slipping from beneath their feet, with no way back to someplace solid. Violet was burning bridges just for the joy of seeing the flames take them, numbing herself with sex and alcohol, trying not to look too closely at the unrelenting winnowing of her parents and the distance growing between her and her brother, Sam. But after Sam’s suicide attempt, they all lost the thread of themselves.

Now exiled to the small seaside town of Lyric, Maine, to live quietly with her uncle, Violet is left to contemplate the sad, parallel tracks of their lives and wonder at how they all crossed into this country from which it seems they couldn’t return. While volunteering at the local aquarium, Violet meets Orion who introduces her to his friends, and to Liv who has a bright curiosity about Violet’s ancestors, the much-celebrated founders of the town. Legend spoke of Violet’s great-great-great-grandmother, the lone survivor of a shipwreck that happened near the shores of Lyric but which was never found.

An echo of old feeling, numb with disuse, stirs in Violet’s chest who remembers her brother’s interest in their history, and she clings to the memory, molding it into a spear of decisiveness:

If I could find our wreck, maybe I could start to put us back together again. I’d find the wreck, and I’d make us whole.”

The Last Poets of the Sea has a presence that wore on me, nagging at my attention until I had to forgo what I was doing and read instead. So, you may want to carve out some reading time before you pick up this book. If you are anything like me, your eyes will be reluctant to look anywhere else, and you won’t want to get up from your chair for some time, perhaps even until you’ve reached the last page.

The story is engrossing, the dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read, and the author is remarkably skilled at conveying deep emotion through attention to language’s flow and cadence, but it’s her ability to render the interior lives of her characters that kept me held in the pages’ thrall. They are funny, cantankerous, and affecting, and despite their faults, which were numerous and spectacular, they tugged at my hearts’ seams.

This book both intensely specific and universal, with hard questions strung all the way through it: about what sets us on paths that we oftentimes feel helpless to depart and the distances between people who were both impossibly near and hopelessly far. Violet’s story felt familiar, like slipping into well-worn shoes, and I sometimes felt strangely rubbed raw while reading it, wide open and exposed, a house with all its doors thrown open.

Violet is just about as lonely and wretched as any teenager has ever been, which is very lonely and wretched indeed. She was the girl who cast a charmed theatrical light about her, always drawn to the seduction of the rash and reckless act, who didn’t really know that “looking grown-up” didn’t mean she was, and to whom the idea of “being nice to herself” was as unfamiliar as a new language. In Lyric, Violet chose to be quiet and removed, a world unto herself pulled tight and secretive. She decided to shave her hair, turn off the “romance channel”, and be self-erased, blanked-out. But Violet clings to the mystery of her ancestors, returning again and again to the same fragments and trying to fit them together like shards of some broken, precious thing, hoping that the past will spell out knowledge and something will shake free inside her and drift away like ash. But her brother’s absence on this quest had a stinging weight like ocean waves, and left a hole behind like a bullet.

The relationship between Violet and her brother, Sam, made me cry at times. Violet’s heart hurt for the wanting of that old love between them, that easy camaraderie that had faded between them, like pen pals whose letters get shorter each month. She was sorry for always casting the acid brewing on her lips, uncaring that it bloomed pain in its wake, for not realizing sooner that her suffering was not unique, and that the people she loves the most have their own tragedies to deal with. The healing that finally arrives is fraught with pain, but no less welcome and remarkable, and unlike many narratives about mental illness, this is not one of miraculous recovery, sunny positivity, or a smile-and-bear-it mentality.

“Survival is its own quest,” writes Drake. “We need to choose to survive over and over again.” Sometimes it might seem, in all clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it is insufferably and permanently fucked, but we forget that so much life happens between the wounds. There is so much life has to offer still. And when all is said and done, there is not the slightest doubt that the sun would shine tomorrow, that most people were generous at heart, and that things tended to work out for the best. Once, you could not find an ocean wide enough to place between Violet and her family, but they’re listing toward each other like a lost ship toward a lighthouse.

I also relished the fierce bonds of friendship created throughout the story. And the wonderful Twelfth-Night-inspired sapphic romance. Liv and Violet both circled each other tentatively, as if the other person was a fire whose warmth they craved but knew might burn. The love between them was both simple and complicated, in the way of the best love stories, and I enjoyed reading about the burning, luminous thing blooming between them.

Romeo and Juliet once had a conversation that became a sonnet. Alone, they were good; together, they were art. I always wondered what that would be like—to be so in sync with someone, you create.

Highly recommended!

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