Published by Tin House Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Julie Winter is a sophomore in high school and if navigating those waters is not enough, there are the perceptions of her by people at her school. Her brother Jordan was a swimmer of Olympic caliber and so everyone who meets her thinks she must be a potential swimming superstar. When she is asked to join the swim team, she does, but Julie is not Jordan. That Jordan now lives in Berlin and is removed from their family life means he’s not even available to help her. In Dryland by Sara Jaffe we watch as Julie flounders in an effort to find where she does fit and what does matter to her, including understanding the brother that she never really knew.
Swimming is only one component of Dryland. The novel is a coming-of-age story about the confusion of being fifteen, along with the questioning that goes with trying to find a niche or space to call your own. On the surface, Julie is doing everything right—she joins yearbook and then the swim team, has a best friend, and goes to parties, but none of these feel like real actions nor do they bring her any pleasure. In fact, swimming seems almost traumatic. She is unable to complete a series of laps but needs to repeatedly stop at the end of the lane, not for any physical reason but for what reads like a panic attack. She is offered a photography spot at the yearbook, but never pursues the opportunity. Instead, hanging out at the local cigar shop looking at swimming magazines, seems to be the only activity that she pursues consistently, but it’s not clear why. When she meets a young man there who swam in high school with her brother, she finally comes closer to understanding what she could not before.
At this point I should probably mention: I was a competitive swimmer all through high school and still swim weekly. For that reason I was predisposed to love this book. When Julie is swimming, Jaffe’s prose is as smooth and inviting as an empty lane, but sadly (to overwork the metaphor) the rest of the novel feels more like splashing aimlessly around. Julie’s school experiences evoke memories, her grappling with her sexuality, expectations, and life feel real and poignant, but there is no why to the angst about swimming, no motivation for much of her behavior. Has she herself suffered a trauma that both draws her into wanting to swim and repels her? I love a good character study but somehow Dryland fell into a space in-between. There was neither enough plot to propel the novel to a finish nor enough character for the long haul. If the goal of Dryland is to mimic the bewilderment and ambiguity of a teenager then Jaffe succeeds, but as a reader it is not fulfilling. Too much is hinted at but never clarified. The unreliability of a first person narrator coupled with the inherent unreliability of a teenage girl creates the potential for a lot of confusion and that’s where Dryland left me.