A Series of Breaths Held

The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

Release Date: August 26, 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins | Harper
Pages: 256 pages
Source & Format: Publisher at BEA; ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.

Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.

Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father’s wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.

In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.

Thoughts on The Story of Land and Sea
I started The Story of Land and Sea with the highest of hopes. The summary sounded like it would be right up my alley - set in North Carolina in the waning years of the American Revolution. Y'all, I love reading anything during the American Revolution and the Southern setting was just an added bonus. I was excited when I grabbed this one at BEA - the ARC has a textured cover, gold lettering and deckle edge pages. It was almost too pretty to be an advance review copy!

The Story of Land and Sea is divided into three parts and is the story of a small circle of connected people. The first part focuses on John and his daughter, Tabitha, as he raises her alone after the death of her mother, Helen. When Tabitha contracts yellow fever, John hopes that taking her out to sea will restore her health. The second part jumps back in time and focuses on Helen's relationship with her own father and her growing love for John. Finally, the last part turns its gaze on four people: John, Helen's father, Helen's slave Moll and Moll's son after the events in the first part have occurred. I only mention the focus of the different parts because it affected my feelings for the book overall.

The first part of this book was absolutely gorgeous. The writing style is so unique - Simpson Smith writes in such an evocative way. The language swept me away, and I found myself falling in love with little Tabitha and her father. Their love for one another, and John's care and desire to do the best for his daughter just captured my attention. I underlined so many sentences, and finished the first part expecting to give this book five stars.

Then, the jump back in time. I didn't love the second part as much as the first, but there were glimmers of hope. Helen was such an interesting character, but I wish there had been a little more development of her relationship with John. The changes and decisions she makes as a result of meeting him felt so out of character! I think that's partially because the story never really dug into her character enough for me. At times, it felt like the writing mattered more to the author than the actual story or characters.

Finally, part three. From that point on, the story seemed to lose focus. This section was actually difficult for me to get through. There was none the spark that had been in that first part, and it focused mostly on characters that didn't interest me.  I love slow books, but the third part of the book just dragged on. I kept telling myself to just keep reading because I was almost done. And it's a short book to be having that thought!

The writing was lovely throughout, but I felt the book wasn't very cohesive. I think that contributed to my problems with the pacing and my disinterest in the end of the story. Perhaps it was just me, but I didn't think the book built up to anything. There was no climactic moment or defining scene that helped me identify the overall purpose or central conflict.

The Story of Land and Sea examines faith, family, loss and disappointment in a way that was promising but ultimately left me wanting so much more. This was a different experience for me - having the book start in such an amazing way and then go so downhill. I'm giving it a positive rating, despite the fact that I would probably recommend it with reservations, because I really did adore the first part and the poetic writing style.

So Quotable
"Since losing Helen ten years ago, his life has been a series of breaths held. He only lives to wait for loss."
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.


  1. I too had high hopes for this based on the synopsis, but sadly I DNF'd just a few days ago.

    I loved the first section, although I found it slow (I could only read a chapter at a time), but then in the second section I just couldn't connect with the characters at all.

    I was hoping I could stick with it albeit slowly, but that just wasn't to be. It began to feel like a chore to read.

  2. I'm discouraged to hear this one wasn't so great. I saw that cover and just loved it! And the synopsis sounds like something I would really enjoy. I may still give it a chance based on that quote though; that's beautiful.

  3. I was curious to see what you would think of The Story of Land and Sea! It's quite sad to hear that the book is really good in the first part, but begins to get less engaging towards the end. I thought the story sounded great when I first read the summary, but now I'm a bit wary after seeing your thoughts. We'll have to see if I ever decide to read it!


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