books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Sea by Heidi R. Kling

Fifteen year old Sienna is still recovering from the death of her mother.  When her father tells her that she’ll be traveling with his relief team to help tsunami orphans in Indonesia, she’s understandably distraught.  She’s surprised to find that she falls for Deni, a dark and mysterious Indonesian boy who lives at the orphanage.  When he hears that his father might still be alive, Deni runs away–and Sienna goes with him.  The truth of what they find will have lasting consequences for them both.

This is a difficult title to review, because when I finished it, I thought I loved it.  Then I let it marinate for a while, and my esteem of the book started to drop.  The result is that I’m awfully conflicted about Heidi Kling’s debut novel, and I’m not exactly sure how to review it as a result.

There are a few things Kling’s novel does well.  She sets her story in a unique foreign setting and opens up potential points of discussion for teens who are learning about the Asian tsunami.  Kling’s story moves along at a good pace and should hook most readers (even reluctant ones).  Her dialogue is serviceable, and Sienna’s preoccupations are often authentic to a teenager.

However, the book suffers from the fact that it’s fairly shallow.  The plot quickly gets overshadowed by Sienna and Deni’s whirlwind romance.  The result is a love story that doesn’t feel real, a plot that doesn’t have enough heft for the subject matter it tackles, and a well-meaning but ultimately problematic look at a foreign country.

Too often, Kling uses Sienna’s ignorance about Indonesia and Islam to teach the reader about the country and culture.  The problem is that Sienna’s narration focuses so strongly on the differences that the novel becomes marked by instances of exoticism.  This is irritating at best, and extremely problematic at worst.

The exoticism could be tempered if Kling had developed her characters.  Unfortunately, with perhaps the exception of Sienna (who is selfish and immature and rash in her decision making), the characters are flat, lifeless, and stereotypical.  Deni is nothing except for tortured and brooding.  The little girl Sienna befriends at the orphanage seems to serve only as being a presence of sweetness, goodness, and light.

The book’s convenient resolution will work for some readers.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that Sienna’s healing took place at the expense of others–and it is this kind of well-meaning cluelessness that drives me so crazy.

Sea by Heidi R. Kling. Putnam Juvenile: 2010.  Borrowed copy.


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