‘People like to think fish don’t have feelings – it’s easier that way – but as I watch the last guppy squirm in his bag, his eyes seem to plead with me. I get the sense that it knows just as well as I do that bad things are on the horizon.’
Mika Arlington has her perfect summer all planned out, but the arrival of both her estranged grandmother and too-cool Dylan are going to make some very big waves in her life.
Told with Natalie Whipple’s signature whip-smart wit and warmth, this is a story about prejudice, growing up and the true meaning of sticking by your family.
Natalie Whipple’s Fish Out of Water rather caught me by surprise. I’d been interested in the book based on the publisher’s marketing copy, so I requested a review copy and I’d expected to be at least entertained by the book. What I hadn’t expected, was that the book drew me in to the extent that I actually stayed up until half three to finish it. (Thank you Wiebe for pulling morning duty and let me catch up on sleep the next day—well, later that day.) Mika’s summer was completely engrossing and I just had to know how it would end.
Mika is just a wonderful character. Her relationship with her parents is warm and loving, but not without conflict. Mika’s father is American and her mother is Japanese and her mixed heritage definitely affects Mika’s childhood and upbringing. While the conflict between Mika and her parents is seemingly due to Mika feeling cheated out off her perfect summer plans – and more – due to her parents’ decision to take in her grandmother, even here racial issues are indirectly responsible for the tense situation that arises. I like that Whipple clearly communicates the difficulties facing people of mixed race. She doesn’t sugar-coat it and especially once Mika’s grandmother Betty is added to the mix it becomes a clear theme in the book. Betty’s open bigotry, which is hard to miss and is the more familiar depiction of what a racist is, is reflected by the reactions of Dylan’s friends and family when they realise he and Mika are a couple. Far less ‘in your face ‘about their judgements as Betty, they represent the far more insidious problem of systemic racism, which is so ingrained in society that it’s not as easy to spot as Betty’s loudly proclaimed slurs.
Mika’s reactions to these prejudices and (micro) aggressions are a mixture of teeth-gnashing resignation, hurt, and anger. Mika is a far better person than I in the way she moves past her grandmother’s horrible behaviour and words; not letting the Alzheimer’s excuse Betty’s behaviour, but softening the impact, and by finding out what lies behind her grandmother’s animosity and racism coming to a place of love and forgiveness. Though while Mika seems able to forgive, those around her still stand up for her, something I thought was really important and how Whipple wrote those particular scenes was quite touching.
The trouble and opposition facing interracial, and even inter-cultural, relationships is furthermore explored through the story arc of Mika’s best friend Shreya, daughter of immigrant parents from India, who have held closely to their traditions and who plan traditional futures for their children. They even go as far as disowning one of their children and shunning them when they bring home a white partner, threatening to do the same to their other children if they contact their ostracised sibling. Shreya’s fear, hurt, and inner conflict about how to proceed are heart-breaking. Shreya was perhaps my favourite character after Mika and I loved her story arc.
Of course, Fish Out of Water is not just about family, prejudices, and friendships, there is romance as well; quite an adorable one at that too. I really liked how Whipple developed the rapport between Mika and Dylan. This certainly wasn’t love at first sight and perhaps not even at thirtieth. They both have baggage and need to do some growing up, but I liked how they were real with each other from the start even if they didn’t share everything about their lives from the get go, which only made it more realistic to me. And it made the ending even sweeter. Dylan, like Mika and Shreya has an interesting development throughout the novel, one that I really enjoyed as well.
Fish Out of Water was a highly entertaining story, but one that touched on hard themes as well and did so with grace. Mika’s story shows the importance of family, by blood or by choice, and that loving them and being loved by them isn’t always easy. Fish Out of Water was my first Natalie Whipple book, but hopefully it won’t be my last.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.