In the Land of the Living, Austin Ratner’s second novel, is a multigenerational story told by the men of the Auberon family. It starts out with Isidore and his brothers, who all suffer the cruelties of their abusive father, Ezer. Their mother dies suddenly when they’re all still very young, and as per his history of coldness and abuse, Ezer ships the boys off for a while. Holding everything together is Isidore Auberon, who in many regards becomes mother and father to his siblings. He’s filled with hatred for his father and pushes himself hard to make something of his life.
Isidore works as a garbage man through high school, putting up with the smell and the sacrifices the whole time with the goal of getting into Harvard. He’s a brilliant young man and succeeds, then sets his eyes on medical school. For a while, he’ll have it all: the beautiful young woman who will become his wife is the daughter of his mentor, a well-regarded (and well-connected) doctor who can smooth Isidore’s way through medical school. The good fortune doesn’t last, however, and as Isidore’s part in the story starts to fade out, we’re introduced to his son Leo, who becomes the star of the book.
Like Isidore, Leo will also grow up having his share of daddy issues, albeit for different reasons. He’s like his father in a lot of ways, and he too will grow up wanting to go to medical school at either Harvard or Yale. But as for his personal life, he always seems to put up a wall. He’s not really close with anyone — least of all his brother, with whom he’s always had a strained relationship — and he’s frequently on the verge of angry melancholy. When his brother invites him to take a cross-country road trip, Leo sees it as a chance to reconnect and come to an understanding of what their family went through.
Overall, I felt that the book was too disjointed. The book is split into three parts: the first part is about Isidore’s story, the second is about Leo, and the third focuses on the road trip Leo takes with his brother, Mack. I had assumed that most of the book would be set during that road trip, but that wasn’t the case; the road trip only spans the last third of the book. And that would have been fine if it had flowed more smoothly from the other two sections, but I don’t think it ever did. The book moves along very choppily, even within each section. Just when I’d start to get a grip on one part, it would end and jump to the next life event without any kind of segue. The titles of each chapter in Part I also drove me kind of nuts. Chapter One’s title, for example:
OF THE MAD KING ON A BICYCLE ALL GREEN; OF THAT BOY FAIRLY SHAPED AND YCLEPT ISIDORE, WHO FORSOOTH HAD BUT LITTLE SAVE SHIRT AND BREECHES; HOW ISIDORE WAXED BIG AND STRONG AND SMOTE THE KING OF THE HARD HAND WITH SHIVEROUS WORDS AND BLOWS; AND EKE HOW HE DEPARTED FROM THERE
And that’s pretty much how the chapter reads: Ezer is abusive; the boys’ mom dies and Isidore steps up; Isidore fights back; etc. It’s a lot to happen in one chapter, and then it jumps on, where just as much happens in Chapter Two.
Honestly, I never really got into this book. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like it? But I couldn’t exactly say I liked it, either. I do think there’s an audience for it (it is, for lack of a better term, such a dude book). That might put some people off it, but for me, it was mostly a matter of structure. If each plot point had transitioned more smoothly I probably would have liked it more.
Sea Creatures was released on July 30, 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown. The book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.