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You, Me, and the Sea

August 10, 2019

As I’ve mentioned here before, my local public library always has good book displays, and their display of beach books recently made me go over and take a look. I picked up Meg Donohue’s You, Me, and The Sea because a blurb identifies it as “inspired by Wuthering Heights,” and it’s been 26 years since I last read a Wuthering Heights homage novel (I remember the date because I was reading it the night my first child was born). This one might have quelled my urge to read anything based on Wuthering Heights ever again, although it wasn’t a bad book. The thing is that it ended, um, happily. What peculiar kind of homage is that?

My curiosity about updates of the Wuthering Heights story stems from my conviction that it’s very much a 19th-century upperclass English plot. When else would two unrelated children have been raised together in an isolated area with few other available playmates and such class consciousness?

Donohue does a decent job of trying to translate that into modern American life, making the setting an isolated farm on the coast of northern California where a former hippie widower takes in an Indian orphan to live with his daughter and older son. The parallels to Wuthering Heights are very close, even to the names—the family that Catherine (in this version called Merrow) gets involved with as she stays with them after an injury are the “Langfords” rather than the “Lintons.” The older brother who is especially cruel to the adopted orphan (in this version called Amir) is a brutal alcoholic with an eleventh-hour backstory that makes him seem, finally, pathetic instead of frightening. The man who rescues Merrow from her life of squalor is rich and blonde.

Even the writing occasionally manages that overwrought quality usually only found in 19th-century novels:
“We had been left by too many loved ones; we would never inflict that pain on each other. Already, I heard Amir’s voice in my mind when he wasn’t speaking, just as I knew he heard mine. In the shed at night when it was very cold, we huddled close under the gaze of the red birds we had made together, and I would drift to sleep unsure whose breath I heard so steady and sure, his or mine.
We would never be apart.”

There are mysterious disappearances that only Merrow fails to realize are thefts by her older brother. He injures Merrow’s dog and it leads to the dog’s death. He also sells Merrow and Amir’s horses for beer money. Amir later wins his share of the farm from the older brother “in a few games of poker….It wasn’t just one card game. I stayed there for three nights, and every night he wanted to gamble another piece of his land. He kept losing, but he insisted we keep playing. He knew what he was doing. He could have stopped the whole thing, and he didn’t.”

There’s also a pitch-perfect passage in which Amir plays on the affections of the Langford younger sister, here called Emma:
“I watched as Emma linked her arm through Amir’s. Did I imagine that he cringed at her touch? I must have, because he gazed down at Emma thoughtfully, as though seeing her for the first time, and in response to his study Emma seemed to pull him closer. As they walked away, I watched Emma tilt her chin up toward Amir and say something I could not hear.”

I found the ending, however, tone deaf. Merrow gives up her Langford fiancée and Amir gives up his revenge. Maybe it would be okay if we left them on the cliff edge of their farm: “Standing there with Amir’s hand in mine, on the edge of our new life together, I felt the shame that I’d felt for so long about my feelings for him finally crumble.” But it’s not okay to have to see their erstwhile fervent romance played out in everyday events and conversation: They have sex. They talk about opening the farm to underprivileged children. They reference the symbolism of a beach rock that Amir once gave to Merrow. They think about having children together. As in real life, no one is swept away by passion or destroyed by longing.

There were two passages I thought translated well to modern life, and one is about racism:
“He thought the Langfords were racist. The possibility had occurred to me, too, while we’d sat together in their den. I’d wondered how differently they would have treated Amir if he had been the one whom Tiger had bitten instead of me. Would Will have insisted he come inside? Would Rosalie have bandaged his leg?
….Maybe,’ I said, ‘it’s easier for some people to have sympathy for people who look like them, whose lives they can imagine more easily.’
‘Why would she be able to imagine your life any better than mine? Because you have the same skin color?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe because I’m a girl. I think I make her think of her own childhood.’ I thought for a moment. ‘If she’d had time to get to know you, it would have been different. With a little time, I think you would have felt differently about each other.’
‘You want me to forgive her for looking at me the way she did.’ I felt Amir’s gaze travel through me, below my skin, through my veins, quickening the pace of my heart. ‘You think I should have empathy for her…because it’s too much work for her to feel sympathy for a boy with brown skin.’

The other passage is about how we treat books. Merrow says that her own books “were bloated with salt air from trips to the beach, their pages dog-eared and marked by my pen” while her fiancee’s books are “pristine. He treated them with a reverence that I supposed I understood but did not quite share. I thought that perhaps Will thought of books as possessions while I thought of them as sustenance. His relationship with books lacked the messiness and the hunger and the desperate sort of joy that mine held.” As I’ve always thought of books as sustenance myself, I enjoyed this comparison.

How about you–can any of you readers make the urge to keep books pristine sound nearly as compelling?


9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2019 7:51 am

    I do like the passage about books. I’m fussy with my books but I think it stems back to my primary school librarian, who I loved. I rather envy people who can dogear pages and write in books.

    • August 10, 2019 8:45 am

      I’ve always dogeared pages but I had to learn to write in books when I was in college and grad school. I still don’t do it that much, but I fill my books with sticky notes.

  2. August 10, 2019 8:08 am

    Haha, Jeanne, no I can’t though i’m one who likes to keep her books pristine. (Well, when I say pristine, I mean I hate covers and pages being bent or damaged, but I am a (pencil only) marginalia person so to that extent my books look well loved. I think that’s having a foot in both camps.

    • August 10, 2019 8:47 am

      Well loved does sound compelling! When I teach college students to write in books, I do suggest pencil.

  3. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    August 10, 2019 5:03 pm

    I almost never like ‘homage’ novels and I think I’m OK with missing this one too. I’m intrigued by the decision to have a happy ending. That could stand as a critique of Bronte’s vision, I suppose.

    • August 11, 2019 9:47 am

      It could be a critique if it were done better, but I think it’s just a failure in translating the tale to the modern age.

  4. August 14, 2019 4:04 pm

    That’s great that you have read Wuthering Heights and are able to compare this book with it. I haven’t read the classic yet but I do enjoyed this read. Sorry you didn’t like the ending. I thought that since she loved the sea so much, the choice she made seems appropriate. Though life there was more on the poverty side growing up, I would have chosen the fiancé for a better future 😀

    • August 14, 2019 4:16 pm

      The way the ending is written just seemed tacked-on to me, but that may be because the author set up everything for the extended revenge Heathcliff gets in the original (by dating the fiancee’s younger sister–in this case, Emma) but then the two original lovers get together, there’s a short list of the everyday things they do together, and then it’s over. It almost seemed like the author ran out of interest suddenly.

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