Shark Girls by Jaimee Wriston Colbert
Wilhelmina Beever -- Willi for short -- is a popular, beautiful girl who loses a leg in a shark attack off the coast of Hawaii. Afterward, Willi no longer speaks, but spends her days under the watchful, gin-blurred eye of her mother, JC. Years later, Willi has become known as “Shark Girl,” and her exploits are chronicled in tabloids. She might or might not have regenerated her missing leg, and devoted followers seek her out for rumored powers of healing.
Who better to narrate Shark Girls, the second novel and fourth book of fiction by Jaimee Wriston Colbert, than Shark Girl’s older, less beautiful, less doted-upon sister Susan Catherine, known as “Scat”? Scat, who has relocated to Maine, has made a career as a disaster photographer and sometime chronicler of has-been rock stars, including her current lover, Alvin Travis. Scat has found a degree of success, if not happiness, a discrepancy clear from her relationships. Alvin Travis, for example, demands stories about her past and present dalliances with other men, a substitute for any genuine passion between the two of them. In other words, “life has ended up nowhere I ever thought it would be.”
Gracie McKneely, on the other hand, is exactly where she thought she would be, but not where she wants to be. Her face irreparably scarred in a childhood accident, Gracie wants nothing more than to lose herself in another person. For Gracie, this means a clumsy attempt at a relationship and, more completely, an obsession with Shark Girl, who has recently vanished from the room Gracie rents in Berry Waters’s boarding house for America’s Haunted Housewives. Though no one there is actually married, they are all haunted by their own desires. What Gracie desires is her own identity, or to lose herself -- same difference for Gracie, who absconds to Maine to escape her overbearing parents and their low expectations for the daughter they pity.
If there’s a book I’ve read with a better premise, I can’t remember it. And Colbert’s perceptive, sensitive, and witty prose does quite a bit to keep the reader interested when the plot’s wheels fall off. As desperately as any reader would want to fall in love with this story, and as many beautiful paragraphs as Colbert whispers into your ear with every page, the story does fail to satisfy.
The more time we spend with Scat and Gracie, the more we crave the arrival of Shark Girl. For a long time, one can go with this, patiently accept the gauntlet of a mystery. And the problem isn’t the utter absence of Shark Girl on the page, but that she remains, absent or not, far more compelling than the two protagonists. There is a reason why we aren’t fascinated by Nick Caroway and Sal Paradise as much as we are Gatsby and Dean Moriarty, two heroes mythologized by their less fascinating narrators. Scat and Gracie, while fully capable of narrating this novel, forget about Shark Girl for a frustrating majority of the book. Willi is mentioned, of course, but only enough to remind us she isn’t moving the story forward; in fact, the story hardly moves forward at all.
Not long after we meet the amiable Gracie, who seems on the verge of a search for Shark Girl, we revisit Scat’s teenage years in flashback: promiscuity followed by alcoholism, a pair of traits picked up from her mother. Despite a vividly realized Hawaii, one of the book’s best characters, Susan Catherine’s story is one we’ve seen before, her sisterly resentment not unlike any sister of a more favored sibling. Gracie’s tale also benefits from a wonderful setting, the cleverly constructed boarding house of eccentrics, but again the “naive girl discovers sexuality but at a cost” narrative is a familiar one. That one of the “housewives,” the daughter of Berry Waters herself, is the unclaimed offspring of Alvin Travis has next to no pay-off, an unnecessary link between Gracie and Scat who will, we know, find each other by novel’s end. By that point, their sudden and simultaneous search for Willi Beever is another narrative turn that exposes poor Shark Girl as a conceit rather than a character.
Sections of the novel are broken up with passages of Hawaiian shark mythology, which prove more intriguing than relevant. These passages are as culpable as Gracie’s curiosity in raising expectations for the novel that might have been written about Shark Girl. Alas, this is not her novel, nor is it Susan Catherine and Gracie’s. At times it belongs to each narrator, but at no point do the two organically converge. That Scat narrates in first person and Gracie in third highlights the gulf between them. We understand Susan Catherine lives in the past, and that Gracie dreams of a hypothetical future, and it isn’t difficult to see how they ended up in the same tale. Colbert’s themes are achingly rendered, and every sentence shows an author more than capable of attaching emotion to language. Sadly, emotions and plot are too frequently resolved through expository dialogue, usually a sign that author, and not character, is forging the path.
Shark Girls by Jaimee Wriston Colbert