I’ve been sucked into a book. The characters have coated my neural networks the way burnt sugar coated my kitchen stove and utensils during an awful attempt to make caramel popcorn for my daughter a few years ago. I can’t get them out of my head. They are real in my head. I want to (in no particular order) hug them, arrange an appointment with my psychiatrist friend for them, book them a stint in a rehab center with a nice view for them, feed them my lasagna, knock their head with a tulip blade for not respecting their parents enough, and tell them to dump the asshole boyfriend.
This is the book. Flat Water Tuesday
The “flat water” refers to the ideal condition of a rowing race. It’s nature so the conditions are hardly ever ideal. The “Tuesday” in the title refers to the day of the week an annual race between boats from two east cost boarding schools is held.
The protagonist is a recent graduate from a public (as in the US definition of public, not the UK definition) high school in upstate NY named Rob. He’s very talented on the single scull, which is a one-man boat rowed with two oars. A boarding school famous for its rowing program (as in the UK definition of public school) has recruited him to do a postgraduate year on scholarship and compete on its team as part of a type of boat known as a coxed four. This means that he must learn to 1) row with one oar 2) row with three other people and 3) be told how to row by a coxswain. (A coxswain steers and gives directions and executes race strategy. They face forwards while the rowers face backwards. Well, they used to. More on that another day.)
The basic premise is that the winner of the annual race with the rival school will be recruited to Harvard, and that it’s a high-stakes race that the school and alumni really really want them to win. The cox for this school is a girl named Ruth, the only girl who has been and ever will be part of the school’s top boat known as the God Four. So of course, this book being part boarding school coming of age story, there will be some crewcest between Rob and Ruth.
(Crewcest: the people in your crew are like your family. So, romantic relationships within your crew are like incest. This can influence a team dynamic for the worse, especially if the relationship sours, so it is generally frowned upon. I used to think it meant that you shouldn’t be sleeping with people on your boat or anyone who might be on your boat during your rowing career. For example, I thought that if I slept with someone on my squad after the season's lineup was announced and I wasn’t on his boat that season, and it was his last year rowing, it would not be crewcest. I also thought that if anything happened between me and a rower from another school during the reception of the annual three-school match, that would not be crewcest. Both situations are, of course, hypothetical. But I also have it on excellent authority that crewcest includes anyone you might row against.)
Another important character in this book is the millionaire’s son, the deeply troubled rowing prodigy named Connor, with whom the protagonist develops an almost pathological rivalry. Connor starts out coming off like an asshole, but as the book progresses, he comes off as being nicer than Rob. Of course, like all kids who are assholes, he has distant parents who put a lot of pressure on him. But Rob's parents are nice people, and he's still kind of a jerk.
The other two rowers are named John (but everyone calls him Jumbo because he’s like two meters tall and slightly overweight) and Chris (but everyone calls him Wads because his family name’s Wadsworth). John commits suicide at the beginning of the book, 15 years after graduating high school, a broken alcoholic with a new nicotine addiction. Ruth calls Rob to give him the news and ask him to attend the upcoming reunion for the memorial service to be held for John. John’s a sweetie. I wish he had a better life. Chris is down-to-earth and also very sweet. I think he should call me, but he, like me, is married and has kids. The whole fictional character thing kind of gets in the way, too.
Adult Rob’s got current issues and past issues, kind of like the TV Guide collection I had when I was 13. His girlfriend of five years, Carolyn, wants to kick him out of their apartment and break up wit him. Girlfriend has a second trimester miscarriage, which is a super rare thing to happen but I guess some us have that kind of bad luck, the way some of us have boyfriends with strange commitment issues arising from unfortunate incidents that happened 15 years ago and family tragedies that happened even longer ago. Rob wasn’t there when the miscarriage happened, and by the time he gets back from an overseas job, Carolyn has already been discharged to their apartment. Rob blotches the post-discharge care (not sure it’s his fault, it’s never quite clear whether Carolyn accurately relayed the discharge instructions to Ron) and she ends up having to have a hysterectomy. Good times. Not.
(My first trimester miscarriage was very uneventful. I think I went to work the day after the D&C. I still remember it sometimes, but I understand at a cerebral level that I shouldn’t hold the things said to me during that time against the people who said them, and that I should hope that people don’t hold the things I said at the time against me, because the hormones were messing with my head, affecting both input and output.)
So anyway, Rob remembers the stuff that happened fifteen years ago when he was in the God Four, and he also remembers what happened more recently between him and Carolyn, and you see the first bad experience (you kind of figure out what happened that was so awful no more than 1/3 into the book, actually you can figure it out reading the reviews out there online, probably including this one) kind of causing the second bad experience (the breakup) by making him rather distant and inaccessible, but also helping him decide what he must do to carry on.
An unfortunate combination of events led to me becoming the first, last and only woman to cox my school's first varsity four. I’m Ruth, except not as good at coxing and less beautiful, and therefore not nearly as well suited to the task. I’ve blocked out most of that season because it was so awful. I might write about it later, if I feel like it, and at any rate reading this book has helped me come to terms with what happened that season and that it’s OK to accept what happened and move on as long as all of us are OK now. Which, to the best of my knowledge, we are.
Including that hypothetical rower from another school. I might write about him, too, one of these days. If I can be sure no one from either squad is reading this. Hypothetically speaking, of course.