From a new voice in YA literature comes an epic, utterly unforgettable contemporary novel about a lost shipwreck, a missing piece of family history, and weathering the storms of life. Fans of Far from the Tree, We Are Okay, and Emergency Contact will love this stunning debut. "Profound and page-turning." --Madeline Miller, #1 New York Times best-selling author of Circe The Larkin family isn't just lucky -- they persevere. At least that's what Violet and her younger brother, Sam, were always told. When the Lyric sank off the coast of Maine, their great-great-great-grandmother didn't drown like the rest of the passengers. No, Fidelia swam to shore, fell in love, and founded Lyric, Maine, the town Violet and Sam returned to every summer. But wrecks seem to run in the family: Tall, funny, musical Violet can't stop partying with the wrong people. And, one beautiful summer day, brilliant, sensitive Sam attempts to take his own life. Shipped back to Lyric while Sam is in treatment, Violet is haunted by her family's missing piece-the lost shipwreck she and Sam dreamed of discovering when they were children. Desperate to make amends, Violet embarks on a wildly ambitious mission: locate the Lyric, lain hidden in a watery grave for over a century. She finds a fellow wreck hunter in Liv Stone, an amateur local historian whose sparkling intelligence and guarded gray eyes make Violet ache in an exhilarating new way. Whether or not they find the Lyric, the journey Violet takes -- and the bridges she builds along the way -- may be the start of something like survival. Epic, funny, and sweepingly romantic, The Last True Poets of the Sea is an astonishing debut about the strength it takes to swim up from a wreck.
Release date: October 1, 2019
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 320
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The Last True Poets of the Sea
For a long time, my parents liked to point to this story as evidence of family strength. We’re descended from survivors, they said. Making it is in our blood. We cling to planks off the coast of Maine, we don’t freeze to death, and when we wash ashore, we marry, we procreate, and we catch lobster to feed to our children. Crying? There’s no crying in shipwrecks. No need—as a family, we’re not only lucky, we’re lucky and we persevere.
My younger brother, Sam, and I grew up loving that shipwreck. Every summer when we visited our mother’s childhood home in Maine, he and I descended to the rocky shore behind the house and imagined we were underwater explorers in search of the wreck of the Lyric. We wore goggles and carried empty glass bottles as oxygen tanks, scrambling across the rocks at low tide until we were frozen, grimy with sea scum. We dreamed of discovering the shipwreck ourselves, imagined gold coins half-buried in sand, jewels blooming in tide pools, hermit crabs fashioning shells from diamonds. We weren’t just in it for the riches: more than anything, we wanted to find the ship’s carcass, grown green with moss and flickering with fish. We wanted to see what kind of disaster our great-great-great-grandmother had escaped.
The Lyric was more than a sunken ship—it was our family’s story, long lost to the ocean’s depths.
At the hospital, I joked my brother’s stomach pump was his snorkel and my mother said “That’s enough, Violet” so sharply the nurse dropped his stethoscope. Later, my father caught me by the vending machines chatting a little too close with a boy a little too old (Dad [bewildered, aghast]: Your brother’s in the hospital and you’re flirting with a fully bearded man?). By the time Sam woke up later that afternoon, his teeth gritty and ghoulish with charcoal, our parents had new summer plans for all of us: counseling for them, a treatment center for my brother, Maine for me. I became a bad sister and a bad daughter in an hour; an exile in just under two.
By comparison, the Titanic sank in two hours, forty minutes. Pretty impressive, to have sunk to the bottom even faster than the twentieth century’s greatest shipwreck. Especially considering I was only sixteen. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, but I was an expert in the art of catastrophe.
The day I left for Lyric, I shaved my head. A prophylactic, if you will.
A week had passed since the Hospital Incident, and the middle of June bloomed in New York City, perfect weather for cones from Mister Softee and imagining your brother in the psych ward. I packed light for exile, ditching my usual leggings and liquid liner for two pairs of my dad’s faded jeans, six Hanes T-shirts, one ancient tube of fragrance-free lip balm, and a heap of cotton underwear. Plane reading was Sam’s copy of Diving for Sunken Treasure, which I kept on my lap the whole flight, unopened. Inside, I’d slipped the scrap of paper on which my mom had written the address for Sam’s treatment facility in Vermont. My plan was to send him a letter, and after drafting in my head all morning, the best I had was, Dear Sam, Sorry I couldn’t keep it in my pants after you tried to kill yourself, fixing that now. STEP ONE: NO HAIR! Step two: Bad clothes! ps How’s the maple syrup?
My work, needless to say, required some revision.
The plane ride to Portland lasted forty-five minutes, and the flight attendant asked me how I was feeling four separate times. She put ice in my orange juice and slipped me Milanos instead of the off-brand biscuits she’d given to the rest of steerage. As I disembarked, she pulled me aside and told me, tears clinging to her thickly mascaraed lashes—purple, I noticed—that a niece of hers had gone through chemo last year.
“You’re just so brave,” she said.
I was so stunned all I could do was nod. She pressed two pairs of plastic wings into my hand and told me she’d keep me in her thoughts. As far as reinventing myself went, this did not bode well.
“Your hair!” my uncle Toby bellowed when I met him at arrivals.
He pulled me into a hug, and I bent my knees so I’d be the right height to press my face into his shoulder. Toby’s flannel smelled cozy, like cotton and flour and yeast—from the bakery, I guessed—and underneath, the faintest hint of my mom’s morning smell, before she left for the hospital (catch her after work and she smelled antibacterial, like Purell and latex). I pressed my face deeper into Toby’s shoulder and clutched the plastic wings until they pinched my palm.
“You’re okay, kid,” Toby murmured. “I’ve got you.”
Eventually, he pushed me back by my shoulders and made a great show of peering at me. Toby was nearly a decade younger than my mother, but his tan face was crinkled like an ancient gnome’s, weathered and sweet. He had enough hair for the both of us, sandy, lank, gathered into a sloppy bun at the nape of his neck. He studied me until I looked down, uneasy with the attention.
“Nice kicks,” I said. His plaid Converse high-tops were busted along the seams and splattered with coffee, the perfect match for my equally grubby white ones.
“Bad arch support. Save your plantar fascia while there’s still time, kid.”
I rolled my eyes. My plantar fascia was the least of my worries.
“I like the new ’do,” Toby went on. “I like this whole new look, but the ’do, especially. The last time I saw you, you looked like—what’s the word? A celebutante?” I grimaced. “Now, though, you look like a seal pup.”
“I look like an ogress with alopecia.”
“There’s that Violet wit. Have you been practicing your scowl?”
“Thirty minutes in the mirror every day.”
“Hm. Well. Practice makes perfect, I suppose. Which is exactly why my meringues always collapse. Listen, kid, at the risk of sounding very old,” Toby said, “stand up straight.”
I winced. The truth was that since the Hospital Incident, I’d been perfecting not my scowl but my slouch: step three of my master plan, after the hair and the clothes. I wanted to take up less space, or just be less: muted, quiet. Shrinking. Not my usual self. I had a lot of height to contend with, but if I hunched, I could pass for five foot eleven, maybe even five foot ten, instead of my real six feet.
Fine. My real six feet and one half inch.
At 72.5 inches, I represented less than 1 percent of the American female population. Growing up, I’d been every basketball, swimming, and volleyball coach’s dream until they realized I had zero interest in athletics and zero talent to boot. I was interested only in theater—nay, the theatre, preferably of the musical variety. I tap-danced and soft-shoed and sang, dreamed of Broadway in my future. Not that it mattered now. My theater career had gone the way of the dinosaur long ago.
“C’mon, don’t waste that height! You got the good genes!”
I straightened up and loomed over my uncle. As if to emphasize the difference in our statures, he stood on tiptoes to rub the fine layer of fuzz on my skull.
I shook him off. “I’m not a dog, Toby.”
“But if you were, you’d be a Great Dane.”
Count on my uncle to know just what to say.
Lyric was four hours north, and we inched along the Maine Turnpike through tourist traffic and construction. I cracked a window and inhaled: it’d been three years since our last family visit to Maine, but that briny, sharp sea smell was exactly the same as I remembered. So was the feeling, as we got farther north, that civilization was slowly falling away. The tourist spots became dingy fishing towns; roadside buildings grew more and more dilapidated until they were just husks. Lyric was a small town, shaggy around the edges, lost and forgotten. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my parents had sent me here for a reason.
“Think of it not as a punishment, but as an opportunity,” my mom had insisted. “With less distraction, maybe it’ll be easier to turn off the romance channel.”
I was already two steps ahead of her. After the vending machine debacle, I’d sworn off smooching and everything else that’d led to that moment: my wild hair, my love of tequila, my unrelenting insensitivity. My need to be at the center of all things. In Lyric, I’d be less. Maybe I’d even disappear.
“You’re quiet, kid. I almost forgot you were here,” Toby said.
The plan was working already.
My phone lost service just as things started to look familiar. We passed the weather-beaten sign for the Lyric Aquarium, the fishing supply store, the harbor. Past town and then into the pines, down the long dirt driveway to my grandmother’s—now Toby’s—house. I held my breath until we reached the bottom, a habit from an old game with Sam.
The house came into view just when I thought I’d burst. It’d been my grandparents’ home originally, a turreted Victorian framed by the boat-dotted gray sea, weathered and damp and plagued by a serious mold problem. A family of raccoons had once lived in the turret’s walls and chattered ceaselessly throughout the night. Against the water, though, the house still looked to me like Botticelli’s Venus. I exhaled, dizzy.
“You want me to set you up a tent in the turret?” Toby asked.
“Not if the raccoons are still there.”
“I believe Maude and her young have finally found greener pastures,” Toby said. “You and Sam were so cute up there. Camping. Roasting marshmallows. Nearly setting the house on fire…”
“I’ll stick with a normal bed, thanks.”
“You’ve finally grown up, Violet. I’ll warn you: getting old is expensive and boring.”
“Boring might be a nice change of pace,” I said.
I got out of the car and accidentally slammed my door.
Inside, Toby apologized for the mess, but I barely noticed, because one step over the threshold and bam, it was our last summer here. I was thirteen; Sam was twelve. For three weeks, he ate green apples and drank Earl Grey tea. I had a plastic choker that left a tan like a trellis around my neck. We shared the same room like always, but we didn’t talk at night. He’d started grinding his teeth in his sleep.
In the kitchen, Toby poured me a lemonade and added a sprig of mint, playing a perfect host. Then he poured himself a beer. A pilsner. Light and crisp. I stirred my mint sprig like a cocktail straw.
“What, no booze for me, Uncle Toby?”
He shot me a look of alarm.
“Kidding. Relax.” Beer was one thing from my former life I wouldn’t be sorry to say goodbye to. At least, not super sorry.
“Violet…” Toby started. He had that look on his face like he wanted to capital-T Talk. Couldn’t anyone take a joke anymore?
“I’m going outside,” I announced.
I took off through the house, which wasn’t messy so much as stuff-y. My mom always complained that my grandmother had been a pack rat—she died when I was five, and my grandfather, way earlier—and Toby seemed to have inherited that trait. There were books everywhere, a tchotchke on every available surface, a collection of foam rollers, nesting tables topped with tea sets, a million boots beside a boot dryer (in June), some Batman Legos on the mantelpiece, so many books, a single ice skate on that coffee table, and on that couch, a stuffed guinea pig inside a disassembled blender.
I passed through the den into the dining room, which was kind of tidy, except for a just-emptied puzzle that sprawled across the big table. The box showed a movie still from The Wizard of Oz. No place like home, I thought grimly. In the living room, a blanket of dust coated the brass telescope and the globe that I knew said USSR, not RUSSIA. I sneezed as I yanked open the sliding glass doors to the backyard.
For the smell of pines outside, I’d put up with the dust and a whole raccoon army. The view was spectacular—my dad’s word, always. Past the overgrown grass and the weedy flower bed, the ocean stretched on endlessly. Moored boats bobbed below me and birds pinpricked the sky. Down the hill was the shore where Sam and I used to play. The boulders seemed to have shrunk, eroded, maybe, by salt water and sand. Or had the shoreline always been that small?
Toby appeared at my side. “Remember all the plays you performed on this lawn?”
“Don’t remind me,” I said.
“I’ve got great memories of you singing ‘Greased Lightnin’ ’ with a croquet mallet as a microphone. Sam sang backup.”
“The horror.” I shivered for emphasis.
“What? You were talented! Are talented.”
“I don’t really do that anymore,” I said. “Perform, I mean.”
Because (a) singing only ends in disaster, and because (b) I found more exciting extracurriculars.
“No reason,” I said.
Toby took a casual sip of his drink. “Your parents mentioned things had gotten a little wild in the city. Any connection there?”
What a fool I’d been to think we could avoid this conversation. Of course Toby was going to bring up my former life. So, uh, Vi, what did it mean when my sister called, absolutely hysterical, and asked if I could provide you shelter for the summer? I knew Toby was being nice, but I went rigid at my uncle’s attempt to bond. Our relationship had heretofore been standard uncle-niece fare, pleasant and innocuous: trips to the zoo and belated birthday cards featuring too-slow sloths. I had no desire to talk with him about my Year of Wild, nor Sam, nor the general brokenness of my family. What was there to say, really, to him, or anyone? Sam was fucked up, and I got fucked up. The end.
Toby was waiting.
“I don’t know about wild. My slutting around was pretty run-of-the-mill. Sam, though. Finishing a whole three-quarters of a bottle of Tylenol? That’s wild. Especially for him.”
Toby whistled, long and low. I imagined how all the boats on the ocean would sink. A snapping mast here. A hull can-opener’ed on a coral reef, maybe. A strangling from a giant, hungry kraken.
“So that’s a no on talking, then,” Toby said.
“All I want is to disappear.”
“Good luck doing that with a head like yours in a town this small.”
I poured the rest of my lemonade in the pachysandra.
“Thanks for the drink.” I really meant it, though I see now that’s hard to believe.
Upstairs, in the blue room I used to share with my brother, with the stiff twin beds and the lamps filled with sea glass I used to count to fall asleep and the whole bookcase full of Nancy Drews, my phone said it was searching….
I’d never been great at keeping in touch. A handful of summer-program friends gave up on me eventually, and even with friends in the city, I screened calls and let texts go unanswered. Maybe that had all been practice for this very moment. Over the years, without even realizing, I’d built strong disappearing muscles.
I switched my phone fully off, and poof, I was gone.
With a single phone call, my parents had gotten me a volunteer position at the Lyric Aquarium, one of the more traditional tourist attractions in town. Apparently, if your great-great-great-grandparents once helped found a local aquarium, you will be hired more than a century later, even if you have no experience and just as much interest in fish. “Nepotism at its finest,” I’d said to my dad.
“Maybe you’ll learn something,” my dad had replied.
“You do realize Sam is the one who loved the aquarium.”
My dad had rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “Violet, I know this may come as a shock to you, but we’re doing the best that we can. Just give the fish a chance, okay?”
“I just meant—” I didn’t know what I’d meant. I’d just wanted to say Sam’s name out loud.
My first day there was Tuesday, two days after my arrival in Lyric. In the dim kitchen that morning, I found a cinnamon bun and a note that read, they’re lucky to have you, xo, a ghost. ps toby’s day starts at 5 but he says what’s up. pps call your mother! The icing was cream cheese and so freaking good that I licked the plate clean.
The aquarium was a fifteen-minute bike ride away, through and past the center of town. I pedaled slowly at first, grateful that I could breathe in my dad’s jeans, even if they were too short. I gained speed and was so relieved to be rid of heavy earrings and jangling bracelets, free from raccoon eyeliner and long, long hair. I pulled that whole look off, sure, but I’d never felt exactly myself in those clothes. At their best, they were a costume that made me the sort of girl you wanted at your party, and at their worst, my clothes were wrong. Case in point: I’d been underdressed for my brother’s suicide attempt. I’d been wearing my tiniest pair of shorts, denim cutoffs, a nip of butt cheek visible when I ascended a staircase. A flimsy cotton tank top and no bra, nipples perky in the harsh hospital cold. I’d ached for a sweater, for a parka, for something that felt more right.
Something, it turned out, like men’s jeans and a shaved head.
I was on the edge of town now, zipping past the outdoor store, Toby’s bakery, the hot dog joint; the lobster shack, the movie theater, the Korean restaurant. The one grungy bar, the Lyric Pub, with its perpetually drawn shades. Then the gift shops, and tucked up on a side street, I knew, was Treasures of Atlantis, the so-called “Wonder Emporium” that Sam and I used to visit on rainy days. Once, I’d made him shoplift tiger’s eye, and when he later confessed to Mom, I didn’t speak to him for days.
Like that, the shops were gone, and I was at the docks, where I stopped to raise the height on my bike seat. Far off, a group of dudes in waders and beanies were unloading from a fishing trip—their boat was called Sheila. Sam and I used to invent boat names, and we’d finally settled on HMS Promise and Discipline. We were six and seven and Mom had just about died laughing when she heard it. “Gotta learn to sail before you name the boat,” she’d said, and Dad’d said: “I dunno, I like the idea that they’re the only kids in Maine who can’t.”
Seat fixed and almost there now, I was starting to get nervous. What would I do in an aquarium? I knew nothing about the ocean. Not like Sam. His favorite place in the whole world, besides the shore behind my grandmother’s house, was the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life at the Museum of Natural History (countless visits meant that the exact, interminable name was forever in my memory). When Sam was thirteen, he sent a poem he’d written about a jellyfish to a curator there, and she was so moved that she invited us for a private behind-the-scenes tour. I was fourteen and I remember, more than anything else, my hangover.
Sam reminded me of a jellyfish, actually: porous, wispy, faintly luminous. He was a city kid not equipped to handle the city, unable to stand the pace, the traffic, the crush. I thrived and he floundered. As a fifteen-year-old, he’d choose to walk an hour rather than take a fifteen-minute train ride. As a five-year-old, he’d hurl himself on the sidewalk in front of the subway entrance, deadweight and screaming. Passing strangers covered their ears or shot my mom looks; I remember studying salt scatter on the sidewalk and singing “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” under my breath to pass the time. Once a tantrum started, Sam couldn’t be reasoned with; we’d just wait until he screamed himself exhausted. Then my mom would scoop him up and load us into a cab, late for whatever birthday party/movie/child-psychology appointment we were headed toward.
Sam’s official diagnosis was complicated. Depression, anxiety, and patterns of disordered eating that, his shrink believed, existed concurrently with certain aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder. That mouthful, I felt, barely scratched the surface.
What about the way Sam seemed to flicker like a fluorescent light? Or how he occasionally hid in weird places—under a table, for example, or an out-of-the-way bathroom. And then there was the fact that, in spite of all this, he was perfect in school, every teacher’s favorite.
At home, though, he was always the problem. Except for this past year, when I was.
The Lyric Aquarium had been imposing in my memory, but when I saw it that morning, the first word that came to mind was rinky-dink. The building was octagonal, once painted blue but now weathered the pale gray color of vitamins I’d gagged on as a kid. Inside, the foyer smelled of salt water and rot, and the ticket desk, a cheap folding table, was coated in a fine layer of dust. The main room’s focal point was a touch tank that housed nurse sharks and sea cucumbers; another circular tank held rays and skates doing slow, morose laps. A marine skeleton hung from the ceiling, its bones suspended by fishing line. A sickly whale? An extra-large tuna? It was a little embarrassing that I didn’t have a clue.
A white-haired white lady in a black fleece and tall brown rain boots was striding toward me, trailed by a wolfish dog. This must have been Joan, the aquarium’s director. She broke into a huge smile as she reached for my hand.
“Oh my goodness, hello! You’re so tall! So grown-up!” she told me, pumping my arm so hard my bicep shook. “I know it’s been a few years, but wow!”
“I’m sorry. Have we met?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t remember, you were just a kid.”
I looked between the dog and Joan and realized I had met them. I mean, I’d only been thirteen, and more focused on the hot volunteer than her, but—
“How’re your folks? And your brother! You know I still have a poem he wrote during one of our Critters of the Deep workshops? It’s hanging in my office. From the small sea snail to the great blue whale, everyone has feelings.”
Apparently, I walked in Sam’s intellectual shadow in not one state, but two.
“We’re so happy to have you. Our very own Rudolph! Your grandmother was such a lovely woman. She helped me with research from time to time.”
“My last name’s actually Larkin. My dad’s.”
“You’ll always be a Rudolph here. You’re the closest thing we have to a local celebrity.”
The dog barked. “Oh, hush, Boris, life isn’t a zero-sum game. He gets jealous,” she whispered conspiratorially. I offered her a weak smile. Boris could totally have the local celebrity title.
Joan handed me an informational packet labeled LYRIC AQUARIUM AND OCEANOGRAPHIC EDUCATION CENTER TRAINING MANUAL and two electric-teal T-shirts with ASK ME HOW I’M SAVING MANATEES printed on the back. Before I could follow the shirts’ instructions, Joan said, “Orion should be here any minute. He’s our star employee—works here year-round—and he’ll train you. Really, this is just so exciting. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for your ancestors!”
“Neither would I. Though maybe that’d be better for everyone.”
She blinked, then burst out laughing. “What a card you are!” She chattered away about my schedule—“Just part-time, Tuesday through Friday, mostly be dealing with summer camp field trips, though we haven’t had a lot going on, I’m sorry to say.…Frankly it’s been a dead zone, there’s a flashier aquarium about thirty minutes south and they just built a penguin exhibit, so…”
I flipped through the packet, skimming paragraphs on marine biomes, longshore drift, and thermohaline circulation. An entire section was devoted to “Maine’s Natural Wonders” and listed the limestone cliffs of Fabian’s Bluff; Old Sow Whirlpool, the largest whirlpool in the western hemisphere; the Desert of Maine. (Not a true desert, but a tract of glacial silt!) Did I really have to learn all this?
“Do you guys still do tide-pooling classes?” I asked. “I remember liking those with my brother.”
“Weellll.” Joan’s voice grew squeaky. “There’ve been some cuts to programming in the past few years. We’ve lost some funding, sadly, and a few of our educational programs have fallen by the wayside as a result. That’s why we’re closed on Mondays, you see.”
“Oh.” For the best, maybe. The last thing I needed on my conscience was a child banana-peeling on a sea star and cracking her head open on a rock. “What about the lobster demonstrations?”
“Good memory!” she said. “But, no, we don’t do those anymore either. There was an…incident.” She made pincers with her hands and chomped at the air. “I maintain our lobster was provoked, but…” She shrugged. “We’re a little light on the programming this year. But. So happy to have you on board. You’re going to do great work here.”
Boris raised his wolf-doggy eyebrows. He had me all figured out.
“I’ve got to go track down your paperwork, but please poke around! Explore. That’s what we’re here for.”
Joan disappeared upstairs, Boris jingling after her. My poking around left me underwhelmed. The aquarium’s star attraction was an (admittedly awesome) mammoth blue lobster named Louise, but otherwise, the. . .
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