The Last True Poets of the Sea is a contemporary story about the importance of communication. Having read so many stories that only use miscommunication as a plot device, it’s so refreshing to find something that truly tackles how difficult it can be to open up to others, even when you need it; how easy it is to not understand each other inside a family.
Violet’s family has a history of mental illness. Her younger brother Sam has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt, and she has been sent to a coastal small town in Maine to spend the summer with her uncle. She’s very much not ok: she’s dealing with dissociation and panic attacks and a general feeling of not belonging in her own life, of only existing to ruin everything.
Violet is a kind of YA main character I’m not used to reading about – she tries to distract herself through partying, drinking, flirting, sometimes ending up in dangerous situations, and yet she’s never a cautionary tale. She’s queer but doesn’t have everything figured out. And, more than anything, she’s never afraid to take up space, and likes to attract attention: I’m not used to seeing this, because there’s a stigma to women wanting attention (it’s not a case the most common insult used for people who want attention has a gendered slur in it), and characters like Violet are often seen as “unlikable”. I loved her and her growth.
One of the things I liked the most about The Last True Poets of the Sea is how it handles mental illness. We rarely see books deal with the fact that sometimes (often? more often than fiction would have you think) these things run in families, but present themselves differently depending on the person. At the same time, some parts were weird to read for me, because seeing yourself in a side character can be like that (and, by the way, I really didn’t like how they referred to Sam’s panic attacks as “tantrums”. That’s not what that is), but for the most part I can’t complain: this book is uncomfortably accurate in portraying many things, and I really appreciate its dedication to realism.
The teens in this book feel like actual teens. They have acne and ugly feet and questionable taste in clothes (…this is the first time in my life I’ve seen a book with a love interest who has acne), they drink and smoke even though there are times in which they wish they didn’t, they’re reckless and immature and can’t communicate, they have almost nothing figured out. All of these things shouldn’t be so uncommon, and yet I found myself surprised again and again by how real this felt, when its overarching plot is about a group of friends looking for a lost shipwreck of all things.
It also has a very realistic queer love triangle ending in a very sweet romance! And it’s one of the few books in which I’ve seen someone apologize for unintentionally walking over another person’s feelings in this context. It’s… such a gem. And it’s really atmospheric as well: Lyric, Maine doesn’t exist but it sure felt like a real place.
The only thing that didn’t make it feel as real was the audiobook narration, because all the characters, the majority of which are under 17, sounded like middle aged women. (I often couldn’t distinguish them or Violet’s narration from her dialogue.)
I’m giving it four stars mostly because around halfway through I was kind of bored and felt like not much was actually happening, but the last 20% managed to almost make me tear up, which doesn’t happen often.
My rating: ★★★★