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Book Review: Lágrimas en el mar (Salt to the Sea) by Ruta Sepetys (4/5)

1 May

It took me two months, but I finally finished my 2023 Spanish Language Read! If you’re new here, I have a degree in Spanish but I don’t have a job or lifestyle where I get to use that skill often. So every year, I read a book in Spanish. Usually, it’s YA because that’s about my reading level. This book was recommended to me by my sister in law and I thought it was a good opportunity to read it and get through my Spanish read of the year.


Cover image via Amazon

Lágrimas en el mar (Salt to the Sea) by Ruta Septetys

Other books by Sepetys reviewed on this blog:

Out of the Easy
Between Shades of Grey

Summary from Amazon:

Winter 1945. WWII. Four refugees. Four stories.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war. As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom. But not all promises can be kept . . .

So this is a summary I’m really glad I didn’t read. And I’m unsure how to keep this review spoiler free so read ahead at your own risk, though I’ll try my hardest. I did end up spoiling the ending for myself because I peeked at the references at the end and one of the movies on the topic she recommended tells you the historical events in the title. So, whoops! One of the things I really liked about this book was the short chapters. Especially reading in a language that’s not my native language, having short chapters with easy stopping points for when my brain inevitably needed a break was wonderful. The four points of view were very distinct and I never mixed the characters up. I think the way Sepetys set this book up was great for the ending we drove toward.

I kept forgetting that these characters were so young. If we got exact ages, I’ve forgotten them but I think we’re looking at people 16-22. The things they had to see and endure at such a young age seem unthinkable, but war is unimaginable and that’s how we got there. The things that they did and saw seemed to age them faster than one would normally imagine. So while at times I had to remind myself that their level of maturity was in line with their lived experiences, I think it was appropriate.

Joana was my favorite character. She seemed to lead in a way I admired and she was very selfless. I think in the situation she as in, it would be hard to think of others before yourself so I admired this about her. She was very practical and kind. While Florian seemed cold at times, Joana never did and her emotions were raw and rang true to me.

Luckily, there wasn’t a lot in this story I could relate to. These characters were in an insanely bad situation and they were never allowed to rest for a moment. I thought Emilia might be the most relatable to me because I’ve been pregnant, but her pregnancy was a very small part of her story in the end.


Ruta Sepetys Image via the Between Shades of Gray website

The end of this book was very well written and I flew through it. Once they got on the boat, things didn’t slow down for a second. We learned a lot about the characters through their travels and waiting to get on the boat, but it wasn’t until they were onboard that I struggled to put this book down. The relationships they’d built and the love we had between them was incredible and the ending came like a rush that I wasn’t ready for. I was captivated.

I felt like the traveling section of this book, about the first third, was a bit duller. While we saw the three refugee characters come together, Alfred always seemed like a lost soul and he didn’t add anything to this part of the book. It set up well the situation we’d find on the Gustloff but I’m not sure that was something that couldn’t have been explained quickly when they got to their destination.

[Spoilers ahead] Sepetys has written WWII stories of people whose stories are not commonly told. This is no exception. As a fan of Titanic history, I thought I knew my other maritime disasters well. I’d never heard of the Gustloff. To this day, it’s the largest maritime disaster in history. The picture Sepetys paints in this book is heartbreaking. Filled with wounded soldiers and refugees, the Russians clearly torpedoed the ship thinking they were killing some high-ranking Nazi officers. They didn’t account for the other lives they would ruin. Reading this during another Russian war seems very timely and it makes you consider the civilian cost. If even one innocent person dies, isn’t it too much?

Writer’s Takeaway: The alternating points of view was unique in this book. Keeping the chapters short meant we were never in one person’s head for too long. I always find that in multiple POV books, there’s one person I care less about. It was Alfred in this book. However, with the short chapters, I didn’t inwardly sigh when I got to one of his letters to Hannelore because I knew it would be short and over soon. It also allowed us to see a single scene from more than one person’s point of view. I liked this, especially in scenes between Joana and Florian. It was a great tool.

This was a solid read and I might have enjoyed it more in English when I would have been able to read in longer sections. Four our of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
MV Wilhelm Gustloff | Wikipedia
Salt to the Sea (Ruta Sepetys) | A Bolt Out of the Book
Salt to the Sea Review |BookLoversBlog
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys | Megan’s Musings