by Ash B.
Not to be dramatic, but The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake is one of the most underrated novels I’ve read. It received positive reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly – and yet it still seems like not many people know about it. That’s why I eagerly recommend it whenever I can!
Violet Larkin is a wild child – partying and doing all manner of things that a 16-year-old girl probably shouldn’t be in New York City. After her younger brother attempts suicide and her own reckless behavior worsens, her family sends her to stay with her uncle for the summer in the small coastal town of Lyric, Maine.
Descended from a shipwreck survivor who supposedly founded Lyric, Violet is convinced that disaster runs in her blood. As she struggles with inner turmoil, she becomes determined to uncover the long-lost location of that shipwreck and the truth of her family history. With the help of new, unexpected friends, Violet discovers so much more – about herself, about love in all forms, and about surviving the emotional wrecks of life.
After Violet starts working at the local aquarium in Lyric, the story seems like it might include a very “boy meets girl” romance with her coworker, but it delightfully diverges into something more refreshing. While there is a slow-burn teen romance with a bit of a “twist” love interest, that is far from the focal point of the book. I would say the core of the story is the complexity of mental health and the importance of allowing oneself to be (safely) emotionally vulnerable. The narrative balances the mending of relationships within Violet’s family, the importance of Violet building new friendships in Lyric, and the development of Violet’s relationship with herself.
It is such a beautiful story of healing and connection. I really appreciated how Violet, an amazingly complex teen protagonist, opened my eyes to how mental illness and trauma can impact and manifest in such different ways depending on each person. For someone such as myself, anxiety typically causes retreating into oneself, isolating, and fearing the outside world. Social anxiety and generalized anxiety can really go hand-in-hand in this way, at least in my experience.
However, for Violet, her anxiety – the storm she feels inside but doesn’t know how to healthily cope with – is sometimes the catalyst for her extroverted, often-risky behaviors such as partying, (underage) drinking in social settings, and flirting with much older men. Over the course of the novel, I grew to understand why someone like Violet might engage in those types of behavior (that would personally make my anxiety even worse) as a means of trying to avoid their inner struggles.
This is a YA novel that I think can help so many people, teens and adults alike. It shows the importance of communication, self-love, healthy interpersonal relationships, and being kind to oneself while growing up. It challenges the idea that teens who “act out” are “bad” or “broken,” instead showing the nuanced reasons why unhealthy coping behaviors are used by young people who are struggling. Not to mention that it is beautifully written with crossover appeal for both YA and adult fiction readers.
The characters of The Last True Poets of the Sea settled into my heart and have made a permanent home there. I read this book for the first time over a year ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. When a book lingers with you long after you finish the final page, that tends to be a good sign. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and I’m planning on re-reading it during my own trip to Maine this summer! If you’re interested in a contemporary coming-of-age story, I really hope you give this one a read.
Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree.