I’m positive I read about this book on someone’s blog, but I’m not sure who…
So this is my second book I’ve read recently set in Australia, and both books had a main character named Tom. Are there a lot of Toms in Australia?? Also my husband’s name is Tom, so it always feels weird to read about another one…
Anyway. This book is actually mostly about a research scientist named Anna, who narrates the story. On her 49th birthday, Anna finds out that the funding for her long-term research project on Huntington’s disease has been discontinued, and she is now unemployed and not sure what she is going to do next. Through a series of events she ends up renting a (very) small house on a (very) small island off the coast of Australia – a completely different experience from her apartment life in Boston.
I think I was hoping that this story would just be about Anna’s life on the island and getting to know people and whatnot, and at some level it was. But on the island Anna meets Tom, who is also a scientist. His work is studying sea turtles. Anna falls in love with Tom, but even though he does become her lover, there isn’t really a sense of permanence about the relationship. Anna is only staying on the island for a year, and there is a sort of big question mark as to what is going to happen to them when her time there is done. It felt like way too much of this story was about Anna and her feelings towards Tom, which was disappointing to me, because the feelings weren’t particularly interesting, and felt somewhat weird considering Anna’s age – so much of her internal dialogue felt way more YA than mature adult. Not that adults can’t have fluttery, romantic feelings, but Anna’s uncertainty and self-consciousness and jealousy just didn’t always feel like they fit her age.
There is an ongoing theme with Huntington’s disease, and as I have had a cousin (only two months older than me) pass away from complications of early-onset Huntington’s, and since his sister is also positive and beginning to show symptoms, I do have some personal connection, even if it isn’t super close. While I felt like Ogden handled the disease aspect sensitively, it was pretty obvious that she is very much pro-assisted-suicide, a position that I cannot remotely condone. While the book wasn’t necessarily polemic, it did venture that direction at times, and the reader is definitely only given one very specific position on a topic that to me has way, way more complications than Ogden’s simplified “this is just a nice way to make sure people don’t have to suffer if they don’t want to” explanation. (It was also frustrating that Ogden only gave people two options: long, drawn-out misery and suffering or a quick, painless, basically pleasant death. Especially after reading a book about hospice last winter, and after watching multiple relatives work through varying stages of cancer, I cannot possibly agree that killing oneself is the only “good” option…) I was just really, really uncomfortable with the way Ogden consistently presented assisted suicide as a 100% great choice, and people who opposed it as being close-minded and unable to really understand the situation. Of course, I always get aggravated when people inform me that my conservative viewpoint would obviously change if I was in a different situation. Or… I’ve actually thought through it and this is what I believe from a logical decision, not just off-the-cuff?!
Anyway. It also felt pretty obvious to me what Tom’s “big secret” was, and the way that it all played out really annoyed me quite a bit, which I’ll put below the cut.
Despite these negatives, I actually did enjoy reading this book. Large chunks of it had nothing whatsoever to do with death or disease or suicide, and those bits were quite pleasant. I loved reading about the sea turtles and the research there, and reading about Anna reconnecting with her love of the ocean. And even though it felt somewhat odd, I even enjoyed Anna making up with her mom and the way those things played out.
Overall, A Drop in the Ocean had that typical A Novel tendency to make everything quite dreary and depressing, with even the “happy” parts somehow coming out a bit gray and surrounded by qualifications. While I found it a nice one-time read, it definitely wasn’t a book that became an instant classic for me, especially because of the way it all concluded. But apparently loads of people enjoy having all their characters end up with mediocre conclusions, so maybe this book is for you…
Spoilers below –
So of course Tom’s dad has Huntington’s, which means Tom has a 50% chance of also having the disease. Up until this point he has refused to be tested, preferring to hang onto hope. But because he also falls in love with Anna, he decides to go ahead and have the test done, and it comes back positive. He tells her that because of this, he can’t marry her, because he loves her too much to make her sacrifice herself the way that his mother has sacrificed herself for Tom’s dad.
First off, how selfish is this? Like… maybe Anna can get to decide that?? While I obviously don’t want my husband to be terminally ill, if he was, taking care of him would be a privilege. It is an honor to be able to care for someone you love, and if you’re only marrying someone for the fun, sunshiny days, you probably shouldn’t get married. It just felt so selfish for Tom to just arbitrarily make that decision instead of recognizing that it should have been a mutual decision.
Then, the epilogue tells us that they still get together a couple of times every year! So… what was the point?! Like Anna still continues to be in love with Tom, and to come visit him, and to take care of him… does he think that when his Huntington’s gets really bad she’s just going to stop visiting him??? It just felt like the whole thing was a waste. If the point of them not getting married was so that Anna wouldn’t have to suffer, then wouldn’t it have made a heck of a lot more sense for her to, I don’t know, not fly halfway around the world to visit him twice a year?!
FINALLY on top of all that, Anna gives us this flowery explanation of how Tom regularly takes cognitive tests, and when he drops below a certain level he’s going to go drown himself in the ocean. Like it takes her an entire paragraph to say this because she is trying to make it sound all beautiful and deep and like a really poetic thing to do, but the point is that as soon as things get difficult, he’s just going to go off himself so he doesn’t have to mess with any of it. Despite the fact that the whole reason he couldn’t marry Anna was because he didn’t want her taking care of him… even though he plans to kill himself before someone has to take care of him… so it still makes NO SENSE that they didn’t end up together!
The constant attempt to make suicide sound like this beautiful, romantic way to gently drift away from all of life’s physical worries really annoyed me, especially when Tom used those physical worries as an excuse to not marry Anna, despite the fact that he has no intentions of living through them anyway. Whatever. It just really griped me that their whole relationship ended up being kind of dumb and pointless.