Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sea of Light by Jenifer Levin


Shining A Spotlight On Amazing Books From The Last Few Years

With Special Guest Reviewer, KATE CHRISTIE, author of SOLSTICE, LEAVING L.A., BEAUTIFUL GAME, and her newest title, GAY PRIDE & PREJUDICE

Book:  The Sea of Light
Author:  Jenifer Levin
Publisher:  Plume Books

Like many readers, I have on my “favorites” bookshelf a few books—very few—that I re-read once or twice a decade. Virginia Woolf’s collected essays reside there, alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s work, most of Austen’s novels, and, perhaps a bit incongruously, the Harry Potter series. Woolf I read for language and intelligence; Hurston for history and truth; Austen for wit and consummately-drawn characters; and J.K. Rowling for skilled storytelling that has moved a generation of children—and their parents—to eagerly await and devour multiple 700-page tomes.

After a long hiatus,
Jenifer Levin returns
with this Kindle Short
One of the lesbian fiction titles on my re-read shelf is Jenifer Levin’s 1993 novel, The Sea of Light, published by Plume Books the year I graduated from college. I have long considered The Sea of Light among my favorite novels, and was excited when, after many years away from writing, Levin recently released a an essay called Night of a Thousand Jeters that ruminates on race, parenting, the growing gap in America between the rich and the poor, September 11, and, yes, Derek Jeter. I downloaded the essay a few weeks ago and read it in one sitting, so when Salem offered me a guest blog spot on The Rainbow Reader featuring a look at an older book, Levin’s novel sprang to mind.

In The Sea of Light, Levin introduces her readers to Bren Allen, a Division II swimming coach at fictional Northern Massachusetts State (NMS) who has recently lost Kay, her lover of many years, to cancer; Mildred “Babe” Delgado, a former highly ranked collegiate swimmer who has lost all of her teammates, her boyfriend, her best friend, and a good deal of her physical and emotional health to a plane crash that she survived by staying afloat in the storm-tossed Sargasso Sea for fifty-one hours before being rescued; and Ellie Marks, senior captain of the NMS swim team, whose parents are Holocaust survivors who each lost spouses and children in the camps, and have passed on their vast sorrow and vigilant grief to her, their only child conceived long after the war in what Ellie refers to as an “act of love, or need, that produced me thoughtlessly—someone, anyone.”

Yet Ellie isn’t just anyone: She is the swimmer who has never won a big race; the lesbian who has never been in love; the daughter who is afraid she will lose her parents if she tells them what is really in her heart. And, ultimately, she is the central protagonist of this multi-faceted tale, the one who connects with both Bren, her coach, and Babe, a recent transfer onto the NMS swim team, playing witness to their stories as well as to her own.

At the book’s opening, the reader joins these characters (among others) in the aftermath of loss, and follows them through nearly a year as each works to recover her health, her sense of self, and her ability to love and feel joy.  Levin is not interested in the before of her characters’ lives, and reveals scenes from the past stingily in seldom-offered flashbacks. Instead, she keeps us grounded in her story’s present as her characters seek to move forward and make a fulfilling after, exploring at different points the power of fear, the intimacy of death, and the ability of love to heal and transform if not the body, then, at least, maybe, perhaps, the soul.

Babe, Bren, and Ellie aren’t the only characters who populate the novel. Levin offers the occasional chapter from the point-of-view of Chick, Bren’s somewhat preachy therapist best friend; Jack, Babe’s sixteen-year-old brother; Felipe (Phil), Babe’s father who fled Castro’s Cuba with his extended family and built a comfortable, secure life in his adopted country; and Tia Corazon, Babe’s Cuban refugee aunt in Miami, a self-professed witch with magical, curative powers. This varied cast of characters joins the story mainly to reveal additional facets of Bren and Babe; but only Ellie speaks for Ellie. She has no reflective friend or relative to tell us her secrets. In fact, her best friend, Danny, a childhood friend who has also ended up at NMS, is absent for much of the novel after the two argue intensely midway through the swimming season. For Bren and Babe, though, there are plenty of opportunities for ah-ha reader moments, given the plethora of lenses directed their way.

For the most part, Levin employs her chosen first person, present tense narrative to advantage. Her lyrical language allows her to largely avoid the most oft-cited pitfall of first person point-of-view—the tendency to directly tell the reader information, rather than show through dialogue or description—while present tense evokes the steady flow of time that none of her characters can escape, control, or alter, even as each seems to wish she could. That is the challenge Levin has set for the women of her story: to move beyond tragedy, to get on with living in the after, to seek not only to be loved but also to love. Healing is possible for Levin's characters only through acceptance and love: acceptance of fear in its many forms, of the past as it is; and love not only for the ones who have been lost, but for those who remain, be they new lovers, parents, siblings, or children.

Another central theme of the novel, possibly even the overarching theme, one could argue, is the metaphor athletic competition offers for life. The three central characters in the book are competitive swimmers, though only Babe has ever been considered “successful” in traditional terms. There is an apology of sorts from the other two for being merely hard workers, not truly talented. But it is their very willingness to work hard that sets them apart, Levin tells us on more than one occasion.

As someone who played a team sport for many years (soccer, the beautiful game), I am always interested in and slightly put off by Levin’s theories on sport. In soccer, you’re a member of a team, even as the goalkeeper. No win is ever yours alone, and you don’t train for months or years beside a teammate you eventually may have to try to defeat. But that is exactly the world of competitive swimming, a world that features individual winners and losers and those who see themselves as a product of their own abilities—or failures. Soccer players are, for the most part, saved from that level of pressure and scrutiny. Every time we step out on the field, we have ten teammates there with us to rely on, to support, to be supported by. Team sports and individual sports are very different endeavors.

But that, again, is one of the reasons I admire The Sea of Light—because it is different, and bold, and masterful, and offers me characters who feel almost foreign in surface ways, and yet who become instantly knowable and altogether unforgettable over the course of Levin’s beautifully written tale.

The Sea of Light is one of my old favorites, so I have to give it a 5.6 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale. I would be curious to hear what rating Salem would give the book—turns out it’s an old favorite of hers, too. But as our blog hostess would likely tell you, if you are in the mood for a warm and fuzzy lesbian love story, Jenifer Levin’s Sea of Light probably isn’t the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a deeply inquiring and often enthralling exploration of sport, love, tragedy, and recovery, as experienced by a diverse cast of characters, then this is a book you just might want to read.

Blog Hostess Note:  Salem concur's with Kate's analysis, and is giddy that she stopped by TRR to share this mutual favorite.  After the blogger finishes her happy hostess dance, she's going to get busy reading and writing a review of In One Person by American novelist, John Irving.  This controversial book addresses a wide array of queer issues, including lesbianism, bisexuality, transsexualism, age, incest, and cross-dressing.


  1. Swimming and women - two of my favorite activities! It's on the TR list. Thanks for an enticing review, Kate.

    Salem, can't wait for the John Irving review!

  2. Baxter! I've missed you! Thanks for swinging by to catch Kate's review on Jenifer Levin's classic! As for the John Irving review? Well, I could only be so lucky if it was a single percent as good as "In One Person." Happy reading!