There’s a unique sort of eccentricity and, dare I say it, magic, that surrounds second-hand bookstores. There’s also a unique sort of intellectual pretentiousness that surrounds novels about how great novels are. Cath Crowley’s award-winning Words in Deep Blue blends a bit of one with a little of the other and somehow manages to be poignant rather than snobbish and literary, weaving together a story about love, grief, and the strange power that words have to preserve moments and feelings that are otherwise gone. There’s a somewhat dull collection of straight teen love triangles clustered in there as well, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Rachel and Henry have been best friends since they were tiny, and because this is YA and they’re a boy and a girl respectively, we can reasonably assume where this is going. Just before Rachel’s family is due to move out of town, Henry starts dating the beautiful, air-headed and kind of nasty Amy (all optimal qualities for a romantic rival), and Rachel realises this is her last chance to tell him How She Really Feels. She leaves a letter confessing her love tucked into The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock because she knows it’s his favourite poem, then vanishes into the night. In all the letters he sends her at her new address, Henry never acknowledges the love confession, instead opting to write gleefully about his adventures with his super cool new girlfriend. Rachel, increasingly and understandably bitter, lets communication with her once-dearest friend sputter out, to the point where she doesn’t even tell him when her younger brother drowns.
After her brother’s death, Rachel goes into a deep depression, complete with failing year twelve and letting her new romantic relationship fall apart. Partly coerced by her family and partly seeking a new beginning, Rachel moves back to her old home city to live with her aunt, who has so graciously lined her up with a job… at the second-hand bookstore run by Henry’s parents. The two old friends are forced to reunite and work out the unspoken bends and breakages in their relationship, all with the backdrop of the cluttered and almost fantastical bookshop itself, the future of which hangs in the balance as Henry’s parents argue over whether or not to sell it.
Rachel’s idea to hide her love letter in T.S. Elliot came from the most unique and outwardly quirky aspect of Henry’s family bookstore: a section called the Letter Library, where the books are not for sale so much as vessels of communication, with store patrons encouraged to mark passages they particularly liked or leave notes to other readers in the pages. Rachel, in her current grieving and grey state, thinks it’s kind of dumb… until she stumbles across her brother’s handwriting. Finding notes in everything from Great Expectations to The Fault in Our Stars to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (thankfully acknowledging the goodness in all kinds of books, rather than just clinging to the classics, and thus avoiding some of the literary pretentiousness I alluded to before), Rachel soon becomes fascinated by this idea of human history hidden in the pages. She searches the books for more flashes of personality and glimpses into the past of strangers, finding an odd sort of solace and a new appreciation for the power of words, and how different people hold different meanings for them.
When Words in Deep Blue is being a story about grief and the personal emotional power to be gained and shared from the written word, it’s lovely. When it’s being a teen drama, it’s… vaguely obnoxious. This admittedly mostly comes down to the novel employing a bunch of tropes I am deathly sick of or have little tolerance for in the first place. The love triangles, for example—both the one that pits “I wear t-shirts” Rachel against “she wears short skirts” Amy, and the one that pits sensitive and intellectual T.S. Elliot-loving Henry against a sports-playing rich kid whose name I’ve forgotten because Henry’s narration mostly just calls him “The Dickhead”.
Amy and The Dickhead immediately start dating after she impulsively breaks up with Henry, because clearly like attracts like and they recognised each other as equally shallow and pointlessly awful characters. Amy is flighty and downright emotionally manipulative, and mean to Rachel for no real reason other than to stir the pot, and The Dickhead fulfils the trope of borderline psychopathic and definitely illegal bullying behaviour that everyone accepts as part of Boys Being Boys. Neither of these are things we should normalise, and I am just… really bored and tired of Mean Girl and Bully characters existing as cardboard cut-out antagonists that don’t add anything meaningful to the story, especially when it perpetuates narratives of Nice Nerds vs Jerk Jocks and girls being pitted against each other over male love interests.
Plus, well… Henry’s main emotional plotline, aside from his worries over the future of the bookstore, is that he’s pining for Amy after she dumped him. Which looks pretty paltry and pathetic next to Rachel’s emotional storyline, which is her mourning the death of her brother and the dissolution of her faith in the world. Though this is something that’s addressed in-story, causing conflict and tension between the two old friends as they fail to communicate, or communicate the wrong things, with a verisimilitude that is wonderful and frustrating. You want to scream at these damned kids to get their act together and just be honest with their feelings to each other, while at the same time acknowledging that Rachel’s bitter reluctance to open up and Henry’s naïve blathering about how in love he is, really, you just don’t understand, are both things that real teenagers would do. It’s a massive sigh of relief when Rachel finally tells Henry about her brother’s death, and after 150-ish pages of arguing the years of terse tension break and they can tentatively begin repairs.
Their relationship is sweet enough, but it will surprise no one that Rachel’s recovery arc interested me far more than anything to do with Henry. Admittedly, though, the plotline about having to sell the beloved bookstore tugged on my heartstrings. Honestly, as well as becoming attached to the bookshop’s eccentric family of regular customers and mysterious lovers writing notes in the Letter Library, it just sounded like a really neat place to visit. The novel captures the strange magic and mystery of second-hand bookstores, where you’re never quite sure what you’ll find, be it a rare edition or something more personal like those notes in the margins. Some of the stories Rachel finds scribbled in the Library, we get answers to, but a lot of them are left hanging in the dusty air. But those strangers’ emotions are immortalised in print, whether as a pen-pal relationship with a fellow reader or just an underlined phrase they thought was important, for whatever reason.
The ability of the written word to keep people and feelings alive is the most poignant and resonant part of the novel, for me—though she’s more of a science girl than an arts one, Rachel slowly falls under the spell of the bookstore and, with a little help from Henry and a little help from the words and scribbles that remain of her deceased brother, finds solace in stories and wordplay. Stories help us get through the hard bits of life, help put things into patterns we can make sense of, help bring people together. Blocking out the teenaged love shenanigans, this is a moving story about stories, and how they can create and nurture relationships and help you hang onto people who aren’t around anymore or moments that have passed. And that’s deeply poetic and important, I think, and conveyed in such a way that feels meaningful.