Gina Chung’s debut novel, Sea Change, intimately follows first-person narrator Ro, who is stricken by grief. Ro works an entry-level job at an aquarium, despite freshly entering her thirties. She is adrift: estranged from her mother, their relationship is only made more distant by their countless differences and disagreements, and her marine biologist father mysteriously went missing on an expedition to the Bering Vortex (a fictional Bermuda Triangle). The only dependable constant in Ro’s life seems to be aquarium resident Dolores, a large polychromatic octopus that was discovered by Ro’s father. The story moves forward in emotionally rich and propulsive ways when it is revealed that Dolores has been sold to a wealthy investor.
Ro makes for a fascinating narrator. Her inner turmoil and penchant for self-destruction is reminiscent of the defiant female protagonists in tv shows like Fleabag and Insecure, but Chung breathes life into these themes of adult coming-of-age through her glittering prose and focus on intergenerational trauma. Chung effortlessly weaves flashback into the present narrative, treating scenes from the past with equal weight. Through flashback, Chung introduces readers to Ro’s father, who disappeared when Ro was a teenager. He pursued marine biology to research how warming oceans and rising sea levels affect marine life. His noble efforts are at once charming and compelling. “We have to open our eyes to what the natural world is trying to show us,” her father routinely says, words Ro commits to memory like a prayer. Immediately after meeting the father in his younger years, we are flung into a scene where young Ro rifles through his research documents only to discover a picture of him with a female expedition colleague—possible evidence of an affair.
Chung illustrates the narrative power of core wounds and childhood trauma. She outlines how generational threads tether and at times muddle relationships, observing these complex themes with scientific precision. “Umma often lumped my failings with Apa’s whenever she really got going,” Ro explains, “so eventually it was hard to disentangle which mistakes were mine and which were Apa’s, the fault lines in our personalities intersecting with one another until they formed a spiderweb of cracks and fissures, a radial network of sins.”
At the heart of this novel are the female relationships in Ro’s orbit. Her mother, scorned by Ro’s father, enters the story with full force, coolly pronouncing that the women in their family “have never had luck with men.” Ro and her mother hardly speak, and they seem to only drift further apart in the father’s absence. Their estrangement is marked physically by Ro and her mother’s contrasting appearances. When she was a young woman in Korea, Ro’s mother was compared to Korean actresses, fending off suitors who were starstruck by her looks. Ro, however, takes more after her father, who was not as conventionally attractive. Ro and her father also bonded through their love of marine biology and sea creatures, a connection Ro’s mother could not understand or access.
Ro’s relationship with her best friend, Yoonhee, is also richly complex. They have been close since they were children, and even from a young age, Yoonhee displayed an authoritative confidence. Now preoccupied with wedding plans, Yoonhee was the first to find love, prompting her to move out of her and Ro’s shared apartment. They work together at the aquarium, but Yoonhee has climbed the corporate ladder faster than Ro and works in development for the aquarium, diligently handling emails and negotiating with investors. To confront Ro about her self-destructive behavior, Yoonhee meets Ro at their usual bar, and after a heated debate about selling Dolores, Yoonhee inflicts pain in the strategic way only women in loving friendships can. “Let me know if you want to talk like adults sometime,” she says to Ro before exiting the scene.
Chung’s sincere portrayals of female relationships also include surprising moments of connection and generosity. When Ro’s cousin Rachel shows up to drop her daughter off, Ro, while nursing a hangover, attempts to circumvent babysitting responsibilities. But Rachel persists. Left with Rachel’s daughter, Hailie, Ro rallies to be an adequate caretaker. Ro reads Hailie a children’s book called Eriko’s Journey, which details a harrowing story about a gray dolphin that was left in an abandoned aquarium in Japan. At the end of the book, Eriko is saved and reunites with her daughters, much to Hailie’s relief. The true ending is much bleaker, but Ro saves Hailie from the knowledge, preserving Hailie’s verdant optimism. “I don’t tell her that the real Eriko did live for two more years in Beijing,” Ro reveals to the reader, “but that she had to be kept away from other dolphins because her time alone had made her aggressive and anxious, apt to turn on them or her handlers with little provocation.”
Sea Change exemplifies Chung’s growing body of work, which explores ecological themes in exhilarating ways. While reading the novel, I was reminded of Chung’s short story “Mantis,” which was published in Wigleaf and won a Pushcart Prize. The first line describes a female praying mantis living “in a small but well-furnished and moderately priced studio apartment in an oak tree” and experiencing existential crisis as she reconsiders her carnal desires. Chung does a remarkable job characterizing nonhuman creatures, bestowing them with agency and emotional weight, and in Sea Change, the giant octopus Dolores is given the same thoughtful consideration. When it is revealed that Dolores is the last remaining trace of Ro’s father, it is easy to look at Dolores as a symbol or stand-in for him. But Dolores pushes against these expectations, sometimes compacting herself in the crevices of her tank to not be perceived. Ro is the only person Dolores is completely comfortable with, and it’s through Ro that we find ourselves also caring about this cephalopod. When Ro laments about her ex-boyfriend Tae preparing for a Mars expedition, Dolores turns maroon out of solidarity. Other times, Dolores is devious, grabbing at people’s hands or spraying water at strangers.
The novel hints at a near-future setting, where humans have made a mess of Earth’s resources. Climate catastrophe motivated Ro’s father to pursue marine biology, and her ex-boyfriend goes to Mars for similar reasons. The aquarium Ro works for is downsizing, despite the urgency for preserving the remaining species that are nearing extinction. In following Ro’s growing pains, however, we also come away with a clearer, more optimistic perspective of our sense of community and place in the world. We come to see beauty in all living things, admiring how, despite harsh circumstances, they can grow and endure.
Sea Change. By Gina Chung. New York: Viking, 2023. 288 pp. $17.00.