Releases April 26, 2016
My rating: 4.5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
*Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books and NetGalley for a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review!
The Short Of It:
Unique, atmospheric and awesome. The best character-driven novel I've read in a long time.
The Long Of It:
I have a bit of a thing for Alaska -- the snow-capped mountains and icy blue glaciers, the unadulterated natural beauty, the bears and eagles and orcas, the remoteness. "The Alaskan Laundry" captures that rugged, breathtaking essence while delivering a gripping tale of a young woman fighting to find herself and overcome grief, loss and anger on Archangel Island, Alaska.
South Philly native Tara Marconi is an old soul in an 18-year-old body. She's always had a rocky relationship with her father, and her mother recently passed away -- something Tara blames herself for. On top of that, she's dealing with a traumatic event she hasn't spoken about to a soul. Even boxing isn't enough of an outlet for her sorrow and rage. Desperate for escape, change and direction, she takes a job at a fish hatchery in Alaska.
Work -- and saving to buy a derelict WWII tugboat rusting away at the transient dock, a place to call home -- becomes Tara's only priority in life, and she quickly moves up the ladder from the hatchery to the processor, to fishing boats and finally to a crazy stint at the top of the line -- a Bering Sea crab boat. But along the way Tara collects friends and acquaintances -- and a dog -- who start to thaw that stubborn, angry barrier she's put up between herself and the world.
I was fascinated by the educated descriptions of the difficult, exhausting and sometimes gruesome work Tara is doing; it's clear that Jones, an Alaska resident who lives on a tugboat of his own, knows what he's talking about. His firsthand knowledge also shined through in the depictions of the harsh, magnificent land and its quirky, no-nonsense, weathered citizens.
I enjoyed that the book was set in the late '90s because it allowed for Tara to experience a level of isolation from her life back home -- her estranged father, her boyfriend -- that just wouldn't be possible today. And I liked the scattered '90s references -- Surge soda, payphones, Tara's first time using e-mail. Plus, since I'm all about letter-writing, I liked reading the occasional letters Tara penned to her sort-of-boyfriend Connor back home.
I usually gravitate more toward plot-driven novels than character-driven ones, but this was an exemplary example of a character-centered story well-done. Tara is a dynamic person with just as many admirable qualities as flaws, and she grows and evolves so much over the two years the book takes place. She works her ass off, she learns quick, she sets goals and commits to completing them, and she doesn't take shit from anybody, but at the start of the book she's also quick to aggression and anger, mistrustful, edgy and closed off.
"The Alaskan Laundry" was a great read -- it was well-written and interesting, and I learned so much about the fishing industry and life in Alaska. There are even some meaningful themes tucked into the narrative, like the value of friendships, perseverance, mending fences and finding oneself. I highly recommend this novel, which featured several of my favorite things: a unique setting, a dog and letters.