'Sea Creatures' explores marriage, parenthood
Florida native Susanna Daniel (“Stiltsville”) returns to the watery world of her first book with the story of a mother navigating the responsibilities and risks of parenthood.
In the summer of 1992, Georgia Quillian, husband Graham and 3-year-old Frankie moved from Illinois to make a fresh start in her hometown of Coral Gables, Fla. Eight years later, Georgia relives that summer and, in the course of “Sea Creatures,” the events that led up to it.
Graham suffers from a rare sleep disorder that leads to wandering at night, and Frankie has inexplicably stopped speaking. So when they move into a houseboat, even Georgia admits that it's “a peculiar choice for any family, but especially for us.” Promising that life on the water will be “an adventure,” Graham brushes aside Georgia's fears, and they settle in, he at a nearby oceanography institute, and Georgia as a part-time gofer and curator for a reclusive local artist, Charlie Hicks.
With Frankie in tow, Georgia learns to drive a borrowed two-seater boat across the bay to Charlie's house in Stiltsville, a collection of wooden houses raised on pilings off the shore of Key Biscayne. From their first visit, Georgia sees how “Frankie might ... tumble down the stairs or off the dock.” When he disappears at one point, she signs to him, “I have to be able to see you all the time.”
In a story overflowing with the ways life tests us, regardless of how vigilantly we scour the horizon for danger, Georgia finds that “to be a parent is terrifying. But it seems to me that what worries us most — pedophiles, kidnappers, dog attacks — is least likely to happen, while what is most likely is some unimagined event. How do we prepare for that?”
It's a question most of the characters in Daniel's book have already dealt with to varying degrees of success, including Georgia's late mother, whom she misses every day; her mostly absent father, a musician; her brusque but supportive stepmother; and Charlie, whose grief over the loss of his grown daughter has cost him a normal life.
And of course, Graham. Though his sleepwalking involves violent episodes, he appears to be a father whose keen sense of fun and adventure offsets Georgia's motherly anxieties. But since Frankie's silence began, Graham has been distant, and when his job requires him to be gone for weeks at a time, Georgia sees a surprising change in her son's behavior.
By comparison, Charlie radiates protection. He engages Frankie the minute they meet, learns to sign so they can communicate and, eventually, takes the boy swimming, fishing and diving in the shallow waters around his house. The sea creatures of the title refer to Charlie's drawings and a show Georgia organizes for him at a Miami gallery, but also to the miniature toys Charlie gives her son, one for each visit: a seahorse, a little octopus, a small cast-iron mermaid, a tiny scuba diver.
Charlie's focused affection for Frankie is a world away from Graham's haphazard attentions. Charlie “wore fatherhood on his skin,” Georgia notes; the independent Graham “remained exactly the person he'd always been” before Frankie came along.
But Daniel draws the line at turning any of her characters into heroes or villains. Charlie has his demons, and Georgia feels sure she's doing motherhood wrong. Complicating her role — and part of the novel's honest exploration of the sacrifices a parent makes for a child — is Georgia's craving for excitement and the way Graham's risk-taking has defined their relationship.
With Frankie, a child so winsome and lovable your heart will pound every time he buckles on his water wings, “the stakes are higher.” The choice Georgia will have to make seems no less shattering than the hurricane heading straight for their stretch of the Florida coast.
The author, who grew up in Miami and spent much of her childhood in Stiltsville, offers a sensuous tribute full of history and local beauty: “I marveled at the canopy of star-salted night, the dark open water spotted by whitecaps, the indistinct indigo horizon.” An undercurrent of disaster pervades the novel, with its broad hints of bad luck and Georgia's reminders of how the railings around Charlie's house leave “plenty of room ... for a toddler to fall through.” Yet Daniel's celebration of life is so quietly joyous — in Georgia's fond descriptions of her child and mercurial husband, in Charlie's “intricate and evocative” drawings of sea creatures and in the tender relationships that develop — that we cast our fears aside much as Georgia does.
“Traffic, heights, water,” Graham says. “There's always something.” He's right, of course. But the real risks Daniel asks us to consider are the inevitable ones that accompany love, including the hard and sometimes dangerous bargains we make to hold onto it.
Gina Webb is a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Event allows readers to connect with romance writers
- Pittsburgh native Dillard recipient of National Humanities Medal
- New book on dating blames the numbers — not the women
- Review: Julia Heaberlin’s third novel features likable protagonist, nail-biting suspense
- Review: ‘The State We’re In’ by Ann Beattie doesn’t settle for easy solutions