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If he tried to say what drew him to her, he would only find a handful of gestures. Her first refusal to perform on the harpsichord; her focus beyond the window in a room crowded with friends and strangers; her glances, which were as direct and unblinking as a hawk’s. The feeling of her hand an inch from his arm. He does not consider himself a lonely man, and yet he needs something in her gaze. Honesty, perhaps, or conviction.

I actually finished this book a week ago and I’ve been trying to work out what to say about it. For a book in which three people die, it’s an oddly quiet story that’s a little bit out of focus, like a flashback in a movie or tv show. It’s not bad-fuzzy. It’s as though most of the colors are a little washed out and nothing’s sharply defined.

This is Katy Simpson Smith’s first novel, though in her capacity of adjunct professor at Tulane, she previously published a study of motherhood in the South between 1750 and 1835. The Story of Land and Sea is in three parts that are not in chronological order, and it’s hard to describe it without giving things away.

Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is it’s a book about how people deal with the death of loved ones. Set in the years around and directly after the American Revolution, the story looks at the impact of two maternal deaths in childbed and the death of a ten-year-old daughter on the fathers, husbands, and grandfather. It incorporates complex relationships with faith, the land, the community, and, of course, the sea. It looks at friendship, marriage, slavery, and the impact of choices even years after the initial action.

Since it’s a new publication I don’t want to say anything that will give away plot points, and for all that the book is dreamy and slow, there’s not much excess.

It’s not a story that invokes strong emotion – I neither laughed nor cried – but it was gripping, and I wanted to keep reading. And really, isn’t that the best thing you can say of a book?

Next Up: Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner