Review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

Title Underwater
Author Marisa Reichardt
Published January 12th, 2016 by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Pages 288 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Mental Illness, Anxiety, Agoraphobia, PTSD, Romance
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an ARC from the publisher for review (Thanks, Raincoast Books!), Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChaptersThe Book Depository

Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive — first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then herself.

But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school.

When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside.

I tried to live in the world after October fifteenth.
I tried and I failed.

High school junior Morgan Grant can divide her life into two parts: Before and after the devastating events of October 15. Before, Morgan was a bright, popular athlete with a promising future, whose days were filled with friends, sun, sand, swimming and school. After, Morgan is a survivor of a deadly tragedy whose worsening anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder have caused her to become a shadow of her former self. Traumatized by what she has experienced, terrified of a world she can neither control nor predict, and haunted by feelings of guilt and culpability (however misplaced) for what has transpired, Morgan’s agoraphobia worsens until she no longer is able to leave the confines of her family’s two bedroom apartment and she seeks comfort in a familiar, daily routine filled with little more than soap operas, home schooling, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Underwater is a sincere, heartfelt exploration of mental illness and a topical, all too important reminder that the story does not end when the final shot has been fired and the cameras finished rolling. For some, the story has only just begun.

Now my whole life is a race. Every minute leading to the next. Every day feeding into another. It’s a constant crossing of the finish live.

Morgan’s journey to recovery is a difficult one, but never unfairly so. Reichardt offers no easy answers or simple solutions for Morgan’s agoraphobia, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather demonstrates the impressive mental and emotional labour and strength required to rediscover and remake oneself in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. Though Morgan’s progress is gradual and she often becomes frustrated with her missteps and failures along the way, Reichardt’s inherently charming and endearing protagonist is never presented as any less worthy of help, love or acceptance or as being beyond hope or recovery. Morgan is allowed to shine in other ways, most notable of which is evident in her devoted relationship with her single mother, a hard-working nurse, and her precocious younger brother, Ben, for whom she clearly cares deeply. Though the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s illness and the severity of what she suffers are arguably extreme, there’s little doubt that the essence of Morgan’s story – of being unashamed of one’s illness and working to better take care of oneself – will resonate with Underwater‘s readers, particularly those who also suffer from anxiety, as Morgan does.

They wanted to make sure I didn’t have something majorly wrong with me. I didn’t. Not exactly.
My heart was fine.
My brain was fine (sort of).
It turned out I wasn’t dying on the outside. I was only dying on the inside, where nobody could see.

From This Is Where It Ends to Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Violent Ends to We Need to Talk About Kevin, there have been no shortage of novels written the about the subject of school shootings in recent years, likely prompted in large part due to the increasing acts of gun violence in the United States and the subsequent lack of regulation in regard to gun control to better prevent said violence in the future. Many writers have tried to make sense of an act that is, by its very nature, senseless, but what differentiates Underwater from its peers is its chosen focus. While other stories have focused largely on the psychology and motivation of the perpetrator or the details of the shootings themselves, debut author Marisa Reichardt instead chooses to focus on the devastating aftermath of such an event. Reichardt neither sensationalizes nor exploits this topic, instead offering a sensitive, empathetic portrayal of the repercussions of such a tragedy. In doing so, Underwater has the potential to act as a source of comfort for those who suffer from anxiety, agoraphobia and/or post-traumatic stress disorder and an excellent resource for readers who wish to better understand and empathize with those who do.

I feel a panic attack coming on.
“I can’t do it.”
“Morgan,” Brenda says, “you’re already doing it.”

Underwater‘s synopsis does the novel a disservice in that it implies that Morgan’s recovery is predicated largely on Evan’s appearance in her life. In reality, this could not further from the truth. While a potential romantic relationship with Evan can (and arguably does) provide Morgan with an additional incentive to pursue treatment and regain some semblance of normality, it is not the sole motivating factor in her recovery. Prior to Evan’s introduction, Morgan had already been undergoing treatment for her anxiety, agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress disorder for a period of four months, a treatment that includes both the use of prescription medication and ongoing therapy with her psychologist, Brenda. As she explains to Brenda, Evan is emblematic of the life Morgan left behind and some of the things she misses most. Evan is described as reminding Morgan of summer and, by extension, “of string bikinis and tan lines, of parties and promises, of cold beer and warm kisses”. Morgan’s relationship with Evan is not perfect – Evan grows frustrated and impatient with Morgan’s progress (or lack thereof) and is not always as supportive or as understanding as one might hope – but it’s to be commended that their burgeoning romance is never presented as a solution to Morgan’s problems. There’s also something to be said for the strength and empowerment that can be drawn from a strong support system and the beauty in forming such a community. From her burgeoning relationship with Evan to her unconditional love for her mother and brother, Ben, Morgan has a number of positive relationships in her life from which she draws comfort and courage.

Her eyes tear up, but they’re tears of relief. Of happiness. Of hope.
I have them, too.
Just a few minutes ago we were on the pier, escaping reality. Now reality is back. But it’s a good reality. It’s a promising one.

Underwater is a poignant, powerful, and ultimately uplifting and inspiring story of recovery and forgiveness that successfully endeavours to lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness. It accomplishes this by providing readers with a positive and responsible portrayal of therapy and medication as effective tools in managing mental and emotional trauma and encouraging readers to embrace hope and possibility, even in the face of what might initially appear to be insurmountable obstacles. A genuinely kind and heartwarming narrative about triumph and love in the wake of adversity, Underwater offers readers a happy ending in a world that needs them, now more than ever.

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Here’s what some other reviewers had to say about it!

● Sarah @ Written Word Worlds wrote “Overall, Underwater is a poignant and heartwarming novel about love, loss, the importance of friendship and grilled cheese sandwiches. ” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Amanda @ Teen Librarian Toolbox wrote “This novel is a powerful look at grief, mental illness, trust, forgiveness, letting go, and moving on.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Katie @ Katie’s Book Blog wrote “Overall, Underwater is a fantastic debut that I can’t help but recommend. I look forward to seeing what Marisa Reichardt does next.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

One Response

  1. Underwater sounds like a really poignant, powerful read. I like the fact that it’s a different take on a situation that’s been portrayed various ways in the media, and after seeing your positive thoughts on the portrayal, I’m definitely more curious about this novel.
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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!