A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of reading a review copy of Honeymoon at Sea by Jennifer Silva Redmond. (See my official blurb here.) Now Silva Redmond's memoir, which details her and her husband, Russel's, newly-wedded sailing trip to Baja California's Sea of Cortez, along Mexico and Central America, and ultimately through the Panama Canal, is available to the world at large. Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up a copy of this sweet, funny, and inspiring read. (Full disclosure: Not only is the author a dear, longtime friend, but I am also mentioned in her book. However, that is most definitely not the reason I urge you to read it!)
Because I am a writer as well as a reader, I want to dig a little deeper than the usual book review and try to tease out why I found Honeymoon at Sea so enchanting. Here are three things I learned - or rather, relearned - from a closer study of Silva Redmond's prose.
Don't be afraid to play with structure and chronology. I'm one of those writers who tends to tell a story in sequence from beginning to end. While this can certainly work, I realized after reading Honeymoon at Sea that sometimes chronological flexibility can add depth to a piece of writing. Silva Redmond jumps forward and back in time, dipping into her early childhood as the daughter of bohemian parents and giving us tastes of her young adulthood as an aspiring actress in San Diego, L.A, and New York City, all in service of illuminating the book's present, her sailing trip with Russel. Although I currently write fiction, not memoir, reading Honeymoon at Sea empowered me to experiment with pushing chronological boundaries.
Sink into descriptive detail...and then sink deeper. One of Silva Redmond's strengths as a writer is her ability to describe the natural world in remarkable detail. Take this passage, for example, where she is sifting handfuls of beach sand:
"Such a variety of colors and shapes within this meagre palmful. A pearly white snail shell of the finest construction rested atop the pile. Its thinner-than-eggshell curves were translucent, revealing a cunning architecture of spirals and coils. Next to it gleamed a clamshell no bigger than a newborn baby's fingernail. All the colors of the tropical sunset had been distilled down to this tiny cavas and yet still glowed with an intensity that stunned me."
Most authors would stop there, but she drills down further:
"My eye fell upon a brown-and-white olive shell, a calm respite from the clamshell's glory, but even there I found splendor; its curved surface was covered with an intricate pattern of lines and angles, like a Navajo blanket done in ten different natural shades of cream and beige wool. The complexity of the designs was awesome, and my simple human mind could only repeat: how can this be?"
My own descriptions are more often of urban locales than natural ones - a gym in Seattle, the interior of a gay nightclub - but I can still take a lesson from Silva Redmond and dig deeper into what my characters see, hear, and feel.
Be honest, human, and vulnerable on the page. What sailor wants to admit they suffer from seasickness? Silva Redmond does, making us feel the nausea right along with her. Who wants to recount their failure, as a pre-teen, to fit in with their peers? Again, the author jumps in fearlessly, not only detailing the behavior that caused her fifth-grade classmates to ridicule the new girl fresh off the commune (raising her hand when she knew an answer or even calling the answer out loud), but treats us to the nicknames they gave her: "Dick-tionary" and "Computer Wore Desert Boots. " And who has the courage to air the particulars of her and her partner's intimate lives? Once more, Silva Redmond leads the charge in a chapter title "Sexual Navigation," which opens with the declaration, "It's time we talked about sex." Although I write in the voices of fictional characters rather than as myself, I want ti strive to bring this level of honesty and vulnerability to the page.
Whether you are a writer, a reader, or both, Honeymoon at Sea by Jennifer Silva Redmond has something for you. Whether you long to vicariously experience new love again, go on an armchair journey with a pair of enthusiastic sailors, or simply sink into clear, beautiful prose, this is truly a book to read, re-read and treasure.