In “Sea Change,” Gina Chung’s first novel, Dolores the octopus signals her feelings through color and shape. These are easily interpreted by Ro, who’s practically a sister to the beloved giant cephalopod of the New Jersey aquarium. Ro’s father found Dolores on a research trip, the same place where he mysteriously disappeared some years later. Chung’s novel takes place in the not-so-distant future where climate change has wrought uncomfortable but not yet disastrous changes. Pollution and toxicity in the ocean has led to creatures of unusual size, like Dolores, and Ro’s boyfriend has been selected to be one of the first group of citizens to populate Mars.
Despite these futuristic elements, “Sea Change” reads very much like a novel of today, as Ro, a child of Korean immigrants, struggles to find her footing in adult life. After literally losing her more affectionate father, in something akin to the Bermuda Triangle, she grew up with her critical and distant mother. Ro got a lower-level position at the aquarium feeding the animals, a job she enjoys, but it doesn’t pay well and she’s undervalued by her colleagues. When Ro’s boyfriend breaks up with her to go to Mars (“I’ve wanted to be part of something like this since forever,” he tells her) and the aquarium announces that Dolores is being sold to a private buyer, Ro’s life goes into a real tailspin. She doesn’t have any great ideas for her career, and without any positive role models for marriage or having children, she wonders what her next steps might be. “I used to think, maybe because of the way Umma had been with me, that being a mom meant the end of being or having a self, that the only way to sustain another person’s life was to completely give up on your own.” Everywhere she looks, the relationships around her look like disasters. Even octopuses die shortly after giving birth.
Chung taps into that feeling so many young adults experience: “The guilt sits on my tongue like a thick oily sheen, a reminder that nothing I do or say can free me from my parents, no matter how far away or how gone they feel, until it chokes everything else inside me. I often thought, growing up, that if my mother and I were to meet as two people around the same age, completely unconnected to each other, we would not get along. She would go her way and I would go mine, and in essence, this was how things went once Apa disappeared.” She copes with her father’s disappearance more as a mystery to be solved rather than a deep childhood pain to be acknowledged. In the best parts of this heartfelt novel, Ro’s best friends, Yoonhee, who she grew up with, and Dolores, her color-shifting octopus that suctions around her wrist in the most comforting way, help this lost young woman find a way forward when she’s weathering the stormy torrents of early adulthood. Ro finally realizes she can either slip into the easy oblivion of sharktinis (a drink she created mixing Mountain Dew, gin and a bit of jalapeño) every night, or better understand the ebb and flow of life’s changes. With great tenderness, Chung explores the themes of family and belonging, the people who come in and out of our lives, the ones who leave, and the ones who stay.
By Gina Chung
Vintage, 288 pages, $17