Like Water, by Rebecca Podos
It seems unlikely that this particular book will be long remembered, but as someone who reads a fair amount of YA and literary fiction, of which this certainly qualifies, this book does provide a rather dark and gloomy look at rural New Mexico and the life of a young woman whose dreams of a better future have been derailed by her father’s decline thanks to Huntington’s Disease. Literary fiction in the contemporary world tends to encourage at least a few things–a delve into decadence and exploration with sexuality, a dissatisfaction with the life of small town or rural America to the point where it is viewed only as a prison or a place to escape, an opportunity to blame parents for one’s difficulties, even if in this case the blame the parent has is genetic rather than any sort of moral shortcoming. This book checks off all the boxes in that regard, and it is little surprise that it was written by someone who serves as a literary agent and who graduated from a prestigious literature and publishing program. This book reads like someone who knows what publishers want and is able to give it to them in a way that will please a certain sort of reader who shares the moral worldview of the author.
Admittedly, not a lot happens in this 300 page novel. The novel begins with Savannah (Vanni) Espinosa a hopeful fifteen year old with a plan of escaping Trampas New Mexico, but pretty soon the declining health of her father and her own fears about the fifty-fifty odds she has of getting the disease derail these hopes and lead her to be trapped in a part-time job at a family-owned restaurant where she has an on-again, off-again relationship with girl-crazy Jake. A chance encounter with some relatively new people trying to blend into local society (or not) lead to a part-time job for Vanni as a mermaid at a decrepit new water park that she loses thanks to a night of irresponsible tomfoolery with the self-loathing Leigh, who coincidentally happens to be genderqueer. The self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies of the various characters (Leigh particularly) lead to an open-ended ending that provides closure on the matter of Vanni’s health and leads the reader to ponder if the ending is sequel bait or simply a desire to reflect the openness and messiness of life for its unusually open and messy characters.
Despite the fact that not a lot actually happens in the novel, it is clearly written by someone who knows what they are doing. The author manages to portray the hopelessness of rural life for many young people who either find themselves trapped in multi-generational poverty or seek to escape to the bright lights of the big city, unless disaster comes upon them there, as it often does, forcing them to come home in shame. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have a sense of fondness for traditional virtues and small-town decency, which would have made this novel less unpleasant in that regard. Then again, if this novel had been written with a positive view of traditional morality there would have been much about it that was different, for the better, but not for its baiting for various prizes and awards related to our society’s contemporary decadence. There is a great deal of symbolism in the novel as well, particularly related to water, as Vanni shows herself to be deeply attracted and drawn to the element of water or things that are like water, whether it be swimming, being a mermaid (if only for a short time), or Leigh, who is said to be “like water.” All of this makes her more appropriately a fish out of water in the deserts of rural New Mexico, where water is something that clearly does not belong.