DiscoverContemporary Fiction

The Seal Cove Theoretical Society

By

Worth reading 😎

A thoughtful but light-hearted novel about grief, love and friendship, with beautiful descriptions of life in a small coastal community.

Synopsis

When Tom Birmingham has a near-death experience and a conversation with Fate that has him questioning his life's purpose, his neighbors rally to his aid, each bringing issues of their own to bear. Emily Abbott, a frustrated closet novelist, seeks a "real life,” and longs for release from the obligation of caring for her wheelchair-bound mother. Steve Wexler, a musician who once flirted with fame, must come to terms with growing older, but no wiser. Gary Myron, a crabber and fisherman, is trying to keep his business afloat while navigating a difficult romantic relationship. And Rosalind Kenway, a dot-com millionaire and widow, seeks connection without the emotional rollercoaster of commitment. Together they form The Seal Cove Theoretical Society, where Tom serves as a kind of oracle, dispensing advice, and sometimes harsh observations that motivate his neighbors in ways they could never have foreseen. The discovery of a cache of Prohibition Era liquor, and the grand auction/party the Society stages, reveal the often-overlooked connections we find in community, and Tom has another conversation with Fate.

The Seal Cove Theoretical Society is set in a small, coastal Californian town, focusing on an eclectic group of neighbours who are brought together by Tom Birmingham’s close brush with death. In their informal ‘Theoretical Society’, they discuss everything from politics, love, to philosophy and the existence of life after death.


The book is thoughtful and slow-moving: focused primarily on personal relationships and how people find meaning in their lives. Most of the major characters, in one way or another, appear frozen in time at the start of the book – Emily Abbott, a 26-year-old woman, has spent her young adulthood caring for her elderly mother and has never been kissed, and Steve Wexler, a middle-aged ex-rockstar, is stuck in the past, unable to move on from his glory days. To some extent, the town itself appears stuck in the past: this theme is highlighted when Prohibition Era bottles are found in the harbour and the town re-enacts the Roaring Twenties through a themed party.


Most of the action is psychological: characters processing grief, reflecting on their past, and working out what to do with their futures. For this reason, I found the novel too slow, and the ending was a bit abrupt for my liking. I appreciate that Tom’s discussions with Fate and his near-death-experience is probably best left a mystery, but it felt like a lot of build up without much pay-off. Personally, I also found the character’s lifestyles and concerns difficult to relate to, although I’m sure some readers will be able to connect with them more.


Emily seemed to be the most nuanced character of the novel, and some of the most humorous sections of the book focused on her love-hate relationship with her mother. Through Emily, who is a novelist, the author explores the writing process and what it means to be a great writer: as Emily struggles to write her latest novels, we read snippets of her work in progress and come to understand why she is afraid of owning her work publicly. However, I thought the author’s representation of women could have been improved, and I didn’t like that Emily’s storyline ended up revolving around a love-triangle and a jealous woman competitor.


My favourite aspect of the book was the beautiful nature writing – the author paints a vivid picture of Seal Cove, its atmosphere and its community. There is also strong attention to detail in the representation of fishing: in particular, Gary’s life as a crab fisherman, living and working on the water. I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a bit of peaceful escapism, is a fan of nature writing, and enjoys books that focus on personal relationships over action and plot. The seaside setting also makes for a great summer read! 

Reviewed by

I'm an avid reader and recently started a book review blog where I share my thoughts on books I'm reading and enjoying. I enjoy helping to spotlight new indie books coming out and always share my honest opinions!

Synopsis

When Tom Birmingham has a near-death experience and a conversation with Fate that has him questioning his life's purpose, his neighbors rally to his aid, each bringing issues of their own to bear. Emily Abbott, a frustrated closet novelist, seeks a "real life,” and longs for release from the obligation of caring for her wheelchair-bound mother. Steve Wexler, a musician who once flirted with fame, must come to terms with growing older, but no wiser. Gary Myron, a crabber and fisherman, is trying to keep his business afloat while navigating a difficult romantic relationship. And Rosalind Kenway, a dot-com millionaire and widow, seeks connection without the emotional rollercoaster of commitment. Together they form The Seal Cove Theoretical Society, where Tom serves as a kind of oracle, dispensing advice, and sometimes harsh observations that motivate his neighbors in ways they could never have foreseen. The discovery of a cache of Prohibition Era liquor, and the grand auction/party the Society stages, reveal the often-overlooked connections we find in community, and Tom has another conversation with Fate.

From Emily Abbott's Notebooks



People take solace gazing at water. I don’t know why this should be so; it just is. 

The ocean is always changing. On a calm, clear morning when the rising sun is still hidden behind the mountains, the high pale blue sky subtly changes to pale green and yellow and pink, and the sea is pink except in the blue wake of fishing boats. When the sun clears the mountains and floods the ocean with light, the wake of boats gleam white and the water turns cobalt blue in the deep water, and jade green in the shallows. Later the water takes on a duller shade of blue, a French blue. On overcast days the sea is grey and at times slate green, and in the afternoon, when the sun is past its zenith, the ocean is like a million mirrors reflecting the light so intensely that you have to look away. And then there are the sunsets. On cloudless days the horizon blazes orange with yellow bands sandwiched between the pale blues of sky and sea. On days when the cirrus catches fire, the sea seems to burn, changing from orange to purple as the darkness comes on. And at night the moon sparkles in its mysterious depths. 

And it isn’t only the colors that change, but the surface of the water. It’s said that the people of the Arctic have a hundred different words for snow. The English language is inadequate to describe the textures of the sea — calm and oily, choppy, whitecapped, crinkled, windblown and storm-tossed. You can read the wind and currents on the face of the water. And then there are the waves, cold and dreary lines crashing against the cliffs, eating away a little of the land with each assault, or big combers rolling into shore, white horses racing toward land with manes blown back in an offshore breeze.



Chapter One

Rumrunners - 1928


“Tell me another story.”

At six-years-old Derek loved listening to Grampa Ed’s bedtime stories, particularly stories that were real.

“Just one more, I have to get to sleep myself. How about the one with my dog Rex in the snow?”

“No, tell me about Grampa Frank.”

“Okay, that would be my grampa, so that’s your great-great grampa. Back in the day, that would be back in the 1920s, almost a century ago now, a lot of people in this country decided that drinking alcohol was a bad idea, and they passed a law called Prohibition. Do you know what ‘prohibition’ means?”

“Tell me.” Derek snuggled down in his blanket with a smile.

“To prohibit is to forbid or prevent people from doing something.”

“And we don’t like prohibition. We want people to do what they want.”

“Well, it all depends. It’s complicated. You wouldn’t want people driving through a stop sign would you?”

“No, but it’s nobody’s business what we do in our own homes.”

“Who told you that?”

“Dad says it all the time.”

“At least he comes by his opinions honestly. I’m afraid he got them from me. Anyway, where were we?”

“Prohibition.”

“Yep, there was Prohibition. The teetotalers were in control and they forbade the sale of alcohol — wine, whiskey, beer and the like. But there were a lot of people who liked to relax after work with a glass of beer or whiskey…”

“Like Dad.”

“He does like his Scotch.”

“And champagne.”

“He has good taste. So, there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with this law, and they were willing to pay a lot of money to people who would sneak booze into the country.”

“Booze is alcohol.”

“Booze is alcohol, yes. So my grampa, Grampa Frank, he didn’t like that law, and he knew there could be good money to be made by a little smuggling.”

“Like pirates,” Derek exclaimed excitedly and waved his arm as if swishing a sword.

“Well…not exactly like pirates. Smugglers don’t think the government has any business telling you what to do. That was your great-great-grandfather. At the beginning of Prohibition, the government’s jurisdiction ended three miles offshore. So all the smugglers had to do was to anchor outside that boundary and let small boats come out to them. On the west coast ships came down with loads of whiskey from Vancouver, and on the east coast the smugglers brought rum up from the Caribbean, which is why smugglers of that era are known as rumrunners.”

“Rum is booze.”

“Rum is booze made from sugar cane. Very sweet. Makes good mixed drinks, like rum and coke, or daiquiris.”

“Momma likes daiquiris.”

“Yes,” Grampa Ed said with a sigh. “Yes, she does. A little too much sometimes, but it’s not my place to ...”


# # # #


“Emily!” 

For a moment Emily Abbott tried to hold on to the vision of Grampa Ed and the real hero of the story she was writing, the little boy who would grow up to be Derek Law, the dashing reporter who mixed as comfortably with the riffraff as with the gentry. She pushed away from the desk and sighed. 

“Emily!” her mother called again. “I made a pot of tea. Did you buy cookies at the market?”

The vision evaporating with the demands of the moment, Emily Abbott closed her laptop and started downstairs, leaving what she thought of as her shadow life. It wasn’t important, she told herself. She would come back to it later. Someday all of her time would be her own. Until then caring for her mother was a solemn obligation. It was the right thing to do, and she’d promised her father.

The Abbotts had lived in the pale-yellow two-story duplex on the corner of Ellendale and Seacliff since Emily was four-years-old. At first the elder Abbotts, John and Mary, lived on the upper floor with a view over the top of the Birminghams’ small red bungalow that sat on the edge of the cliff where Spanish Creek flowed into the tide pools. Emily was relegated to the in-law unit on the bottom floor. Later, after John’s first heart attack and Mary’s stroke, the elder Abbotts moved downstairs, and Emily moved to the brighter rooms upstairs. 

Emily loved reading or writing in the study in her wingback chair by the window, or on the deck overlooking the rocky tide pools and the sea. The view was always changing. The sea could be calm and peaceful as a bay, or choppy and whitecapped. Wind sculpted and textured its surface. The color too was constantly changing, from cobalt to palest blue, from slate green to slate gray, from sparkling silver to blinding white. And there was always activity. Birds chased above its surface — cormorants and pelicans, gulls and grebes. Sailboats and fishing boats cut white wakes across its face. Tankers and container ships slid along its horizon. And now and then humpback, or blue, or gray whales blew steam and arched their backs into the sun before sinking out of sight. 

Mary Abbott peered up from her wheelchair as Emily descended the stairs. “What were you doing up there?”

“Nothing, just reading,” Emily said. She was glad that infirmities prevented her mother from going upstairs. What her mother didn’t know couldn’t hurt her — couldn’t hurt either of them.

“What are you reading?”

To Emily, it was a loaded question. Mary Abbott had never allowed “trashy” books in the house. No romances, no thrillers, no potboilers, and nothing with even a suggestion of bad language or sex. If Emily wanted to read, her mother instructed, there were the classics (by which Mary Abbott meant anything written prior to 1940) or non-fiction. 

“The biography of Robert Frost,” Emily lied. If Mary Abbott could have found a way upstairs, she would have been appalled by the comfortably cluttered rooms and shelves stocked full of “trashy” romances and thrillers. 

“I made a pot of English Breakfast tea, if you’d like a cup,” Mary Abbott said, “but I don’t know what happened to the cookies. You didn’t eat the last one, did you?”

“No, of course not. I’d know if I ate the last cookie, wouldn’t I? I’d put it on the list.”

Emily searched the pantry, the cupboards and the drawers. Her mother rolled in her wake, closing doors and drawers as she’d been doing ever since Emily was a toddler. Mary Abbott often said reprovingly, “There are door openers and door closers, and you Emily are a door opener.” 

“No cookies,” Emily confirmed. “Have you had breakfast?”

“There’s nothing to eat.”

“I just went to the market,” Emily said, opening the refrigerator. “There’s milk. You could have cereal.” 

“I don’t like cereal.” 

“There’s fruit.” 

Mary shook her head. “Upsets my stomach.” 

“Eggs then. I could whip you up an omelet.”

“Oh, I don’t want to be a bother.”

“I have to make myself something anyway.”

“With mushrooms and artichoke hearts?”

Emily took out two eggs, Parmesan cheese, and mushrooms. Then she went to the pantry. “We’re out of artichoke hearts.”

“Oh,” Mary sighed with disappointment. “That’s okay, really, I’m not hungry anyway.”

“We don’t need artichoke hearts. I’ll make a mushroom omelet.”

“No, that’s okay.”

“You have to eat something.”

Mary Abbott closed the pantry door. “I wanted cookies.”

“You can’t subsist on cookies.”

“I like fig Newtons. Fig Newtons have fruit.”

“I’ll go to the little market after breakfast.”

“The tea will be cold.”

The tea could be reheated, she could make a new pot, but Emily knew better than to deny her mother’s will. “Alright, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” she said. The little market was only three blocks away.

“But you’re not going out like that!” Mary cried with alarm.

“Like what?” 

“In those clothes.”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” 

“Nothing,” Mary Abbott said, wrinkling her nose. “Nothing, they’re just so…frumpy.” 

“I’m not going to a beauty pageant; I’m going to the market.”

“You always want to look your best when you go out; you never know who you might meet.”

“Prince Charming doesn’t shop at Coastside Market.”

“Well, I suppose you know best.”

“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

“Don’t forget the list.”




About the author

Scott Clemens has a Master's in English Literature from U.C. Riverside. After a long career as a newspaper columnist, and editor of food, wine, and travel magazines, he turned to fiction, authoring the novels With Artistic License; Time Management, a novel; and Kindle Scout winner Evelyn Marsh. view profile

Published on July 31, 2020

100000 words

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Reviewed by

Enjoyed this review?

Get early access to fresh indie books and help decide on the bestselling stories of tomorrow. Create your free account today.

or

Or sign up with an email address

Create your account

Or sign up with your social account