Sara Jaffe’s “Dryland” Provides Splashes of Feeling in a Hard-Set Reality

Need a break from the billion assignments you have to complete as the semester wraps up? Staff member Kelsey reviews and recommends Dryland by Sara Jaffe for your reading pleasure in the midst of all the insanity.

Dryland, Sara Jaffe – Tinhouse Books, Sept 2, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-941040-13-3

dryland“I looked at my reflection in my dad’s computer screen. In a way I looked like my brother, and in a way I didn’t.” Julie Winter, the narrator of Sara Jaffe’s latest novel Dryland is a young fifteen year old girl in 1992 who struggles to find her own identity after her brother Jordan almost became an Olympic swimmer. Through a novel that doesn’t rush or drag, but beats back and forth like water, Jaffe creates a tangible world that addresses identity of all types.

The book opens with Julie poring through swimming magazines in search of her brother’s face at Rich’s News, an activity she seems to have done often. Forced under her brother’s shadow, Julie herself has no base personality. Nothing interests the character at all; every force in Julie’s life at the start of the novel seems to be spurred by her best friend Erika, a girl who is easily wrapped up in boys, shopping, yearbook club, and anything a stereotypical middle-school girl would love, though she’s old enough to be in high school. In a scene at an outdoor river market early in the book, Erika points out all the skater boys who take her fancy. “Which one do you think is the cutest?” She asks. Julie pointsat a boy who Erika also agrees is cute, until the guy “took off his baseball cap and his long hair went down past his shoulders… It wasn’t a guy. It was suddenly so obviously not a guy.” Julie’s anguish reaveals more to the reader than she herself is aware of. This is the audience’s first encounter with her sexuality, a motif she must learn to come to terms with.

Julie trudges through her life until she is invited onto the swim team by Alexis, the girls’ team captain. Julie takes the bait, expecting to be a natural in the water like her brother. She’s awful. She doesn’t have enough strength or stamina to finish training without stopping for breaks. She does badly at meets. She doesn’t even seem to be making new friends on the team apart from Alexis, who snakes into Julie’s life and invites her to club parties. Meanwhile, Julie is making friends with Ben, an ex-acquaintance of her brother’s who lost contact with him after Jordan moved away.

As Julie reveals her sexuality both to herself and the reader through fragmented experiences with Alexis, she learns more of her brother’s hidden homosexual past. Scandals with Jordan’s swim coach and a porn magazine leave Julie worrying if her brother was healthy or sick with AIDS— and if he was even still on the other side of the world like he’d last said. “He could be in San Diego, one hand on his coach’s dick,” thought Julie. The two intertwined discoveries chip at Julie’s personality in a way that feels almost suspenseful; readers are enticed to learn more about the connections between Julie, her sexuality, and the ever-expanding world around her, driving the book forward.

Early on in the novel, Julie had addressed the lack of common interests shared by herself and Erika. “If Erika and I stopped being friends, it might be sad for a moment, and then okay. It would be what got called growing apart, which sounded calming, a floating, a benign disintegration.” Surprisingly, the two keep a complacent relationship. In this way, Jaffe hints at the forced high school relationships people cultivate for the sole purpose of having someone else. The usual novel arc would have seen a split between the two girls, but thankfully the relationships in Jaffe’s novel are neither typical or simple. Something much more complex beats beneath the surface.

Julie’s relationship with Alexis also goes much deeper than a stereotypical young-adult-novel-type relationship. The way the two girls gravitated around each other created a dynamic that was both interesting and intelligent. The way that Julie obsesses over Alexis caused the relationship or lack thereof to feel much more realistic. The reader believes Julie is crushing on Alexis before Julie herself realizes it.

Like the themes of friendship, sexuality, and identity Jaffe molds in her book, Jaffe’s prose cultivates very real images that shimmer for the reader. “It was shiny out. The pavement was slick and the streetlights were starfishes of light… My mind felt foamy and clean.” Lines throughout the book ebb and flow like waves. “Country Feedback” by R.E.M. is a recurring song that follows Julie throughout the piece, pulling the novel like the moon pushes the tides. When it is first introduced, Jaffe writes, “The song scooped something out of me. It was listening to me and watching me in ways it shouldn’t.”

Dryland feels real in the best way possible, making it seem more like a piece of creative nonfiction. Jaffe has created a world so much bigger than Julie herself.So many issues in Julie’s life exist outside the bounds of the story, creating a sort of poetic glimpse into this young girl’s life; as in poetry, Jaffe takes a moment, stretches it, digs into it. While Julie herself never goes through any sweeping changes, she does develop, and her world does grow over the course of the novel. Having a passive main character is a risk, but Jaffe creates an elegant world that encompasses Julie and overwhelms her. Jaffe offers readers a story vivid enough that it is not only seen, but felt.

By Kelsey Styles ’17, originally published on The Blue&Gold

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