Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey who lives in New York City. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School. Besides her novel Sea Change, she has written a story collection called Green Frog.
Sea Change is her very first novel. The protagonist of the novel is Aurora, just like the northern lights, but nicknamed Ro. Ro is a thirty-something woman whose life has been in transition ever since her ex-boyfriend Tae set his eyes on going on a Mars mission through Arc 4, and since her best friend Yoonhee got engaged. To tie ends nicer, she is estranged from her mother. In all of this, she has an unassuming close connection with a giant Pacific octopus that reminds her about her lost father who disappeared in the Bering Vortex on a routine research trip for his work. Ro’s life is being pulled apart while an octopus named Dolores pulls her closer.
As the story goes on, there are flashbacks from the past. The switching of past and present focuses on Ro’s relationships. Her main relations are her mother, father, best friend Yoonhee, and ex-boyfriend Tae, all having significant impact on Ro. Upon her breakup with Tae, she cycles through intense emotions in thought commentary scattered throughout the past and present. What make things worse are her unresolved ties with her missing father and disagreeing, critical mother. Next thing, Ro has noticeable looming mental illness that inhibits her in everyday life. Shrugging off therapy, she takes matters into her own by succumbing to alcohol addiction. Self-deprecating Ro relies on “sharktinis,” negative ruminations, and aimless dating apps to get by. There is childhood trauma that has a tough grip on her and won’t let her go. There is a lot to unpack, if the reader is prepared to do it.
Author Chung does an amazing job describing what it is like being a Korean American in this novel. There are common experiences many Korean Americans share, such as attending mega churches, having critical immigrant parents, and overall struggling to adjust into the mold of an American life. Racism, sexism, and micro-aggressions are unspoken, edgy topics Ro quietly comments on. For example, Ro’s father has a B.A., M.A. and PhD, but still finds it hard to be as respected compared to white American people around him. Ro’s mother uses her sex appeal to avoid getting a ticket from a police officer who finds Ro’s mother a vulnerable “other.” This novel is packed with Korean American millennial sensibilities, and reading a story with authentic Korean identity in American life makes Sea Change a very relatable read.
Quirky and filled with slices of marine life facts, Ro’s octopus friend is more than a mere connection. Ro is in tune with Dolores the octopus and other species in the aquarium. She tends to them with so much care that it seems no one else can take her place and do a better job. When a wealthy investor is going to buy Dolores, Ro makes remarks about it. She ultimately puts into question if keeping animals in captivity is ethical. Dolores in captivity at an aquarium poses as a microcosm of what humans are capable doing to animals and the planet. Although not a focus of the novel, Ro lightly touches on topics that include climate change, pollution, and is a voice for environmental awareness. We can start with Dolores who was a product of a contaminated Bering Vortex, becoming an anomaly against its own species since it is bigger, smarter, and frankly, genetically mutated who is now amusement for the very people who harmed its natural habitat. When it comes to preserving Earth, flora and fauna, it is second to the potential gains people can profit off of it.
Sea Change is about seeing change, and embracing the waves when the waters are turbulent. Ro sends the reader on a whimsical and edgy ride of what an average person of color could experience today. More importantly, Ro shows light at the end of the tunnel when exploring her trauma, mental illness, and voicing environmental awareness. This novel shows that stagnant waters may be comforting, but they are also murky and full of consequences. There needs to be constant motion in order to make waves. Change in currents is necessary whether or not the waves are impactful or not, as motion gives life. Ro ultimately left her comfort zone and embraced changes in her life for the better. If this octopus friendship story is not the last one to persuade you to go and find your own cephalopod best friend, then I don’t know what will.