Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley has all of my favorite ingredients in it: a bookstore, used books, and notes in the margins that sometimes tell us more about the reader than the book itself.
The story takes place in a suburb of Melbourne, where Rachel is spending the summer one year after her brother’s tragic drowning accident. In a way, she’s running away from ghosts, but she’s running towards them too: Rachel’s aunt has gotten her a job at the local bookstore, working alongside Henry, Rachel’s former best friend. Before moving away a few years ago, she left him a love letter in his favorite book but never heard back. Now she has to spend a summer dealing with the death of her brother, the fact that she failed her 12th year, and facing Henry again.
Henry, on the other hand, has just been dumped (again) by his girlfriend Amy. His parents are getting a divorce and may need to sell the bookstore, which is heartbreaking for everyone involved. Rachel stopped responding to his letters years ago, and when she suddenly turns up again, everything changes for him.
Our two protagonists clash like no other, but Crowley makes it the best kind of clash, one of emotions and personalities and history. Rachel’s anger at Henry (seemingly) ignoring her letter, and then chagrin when she realizes he never got it, is as relatable as Henry’s confusion and anger at Rachel’s apparent abandonment of him, and subsequent hurt when he realizes why she pulled away. Henry and Rachel are deeply flawed but are also written with incredible depth, and I felt myself reacting to and feeling every emotion right along with them.
As Rachel catalogs the Letter Library (a collection of used books not for sale, that customers can read in the store and pass letters to each other through), she and Henry are able to reconnect and process the death of Cal and the imminent closing of Howling Books. The chapters alternate between Henry and Rachel’s point of view, which is complimentary and engrossing. We also get snippets of letters left in the Letter Library, from the past and present, underscoring the plot and allowing us to get a sense of the character’s histories with each other and the bookstore.
I love that Words in Deep Blue talks about how books connect people. It’s through Henry’s attachment to his family bookstore that we see his relationship with Amy contrasted to his relationship with Rachel. Crowley accomplishes writes their opposite personalities without pitting the two girls together (something a lot of authors fall into in YA). They’re their own person, and while Amy may have been right for Henry at one point, she isn’t any more- but we don’t need her and Rachel to fit the “petty, jealous girl” stereotype to know that.
What I didn’t like was Amy’s manipulation, which I don’t even need to expand upon- you can tell almost as soon as you meet her. I also didn’t like that Henry whined and moped about Amy constantly, but that’s not entirely his fault either. Why was he so willing to sacrifice something he loved for someone who didn’t bother to realize why he loved it? But the passion that Henry has for books and the power of words is swoon worthy, and overall I adore his character. I adored all of them, honestly, except for Martin, who I felt was entitled and snotty until three-quarters of the way through.
All in all, this book was beautifully written. Crowley ties everything together: the blossoming romances, Rachel’s grief at losing her brother and Henry’s grief at losing his bookstore, the characters coming to a sense of self, and the idea of a future. The writing is poignant and poetic, each word deliberately chosen. If you love books, the ocean, and stories about hope, this one’s for you!