Dryland by Sara Jaffe is a book that I likely would never have discovered if not for the Book Riot Quarterly Box. If I’d read the description and only learned the basics – that it was a coming-of-age novel about a 15-year-old girl questioning her sexuality – I would have thought, “Hey, that would have been handy 20 years ago!” but I doubt it would have caught my interest. I’m glad I was sort-of forced into giving it a shot, because this was both the epitome of what a coming-of-age novel should be, and much, much more than I thought it could be.
The story is not a particularly unique one, on the surface. It’s the early ’90s and Julie is a 15-year-old student in a Portland high school. While many reviews I’ve read have focused on Julie’s sexuality, in the grand scheme of this book it’s really only one of many things she’s questioning. Does her long-time friend Erika really bring anything to her life anymore? What is her role in her family now that her brother has left home under initially-confusing circumstances? Where did he go? Why? What does it mean for her? What possibilities exist with her new friend, Alexis, and the swim team she dragged Julie onto?
Again, these aren’t particularly unique or interesting questions on the surface, but for me that’s what made this book so powerful. Julie’s triumphs weren’t huge, her failures not earth-shattering. They were relatable, understandable, and authentic.
The book is not in a diary format, but the only thing that really sets it apart from one that is are the lack of “Dear Diaries.” It’s confessional, it’s intimate, and though the reader can make guesses about what’s really going on, our perspective is very much limited to Julie’s experiences and her take on them.
Does this book have broad appeal? No, certainly not, but I can think of several people who would be charmed by the sweetness, the subtle heartbreak, and the confusion of Julie’s coming of age in the ’90s.