Adrift is an intense psychological thriller about a group of five teens adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for fifteen days. Griffin's portrayal of their attempts to survive is both gritty and realistic and doesn't have a happily-ever-after ending.
Seventeen year old Matthew Holloway and his best friend, John Costello, had jobs at Heron Hills state park at Montauk, Long Island. Matthew's dream was to attend Yale studying forestry and become a ranger in Utah or Alaska while his friend wanted to be an electrician. While Matthew fixed boardwalks and lifeguard chairs, John worked as a mechanic in the park's maintenance shop.
Matt and John grew up in Woodhull a working class suburb but attended different high schools. On Sundays, the two make extra money by purchasing soda and ice cream treats and selling them to tourists on the beach. Matt let his parents know everything is going well as they head out on the beach. Pushed out of their usual territory the two head over to Sully's Inn and it's private beach. There they meet three wealthy sunbathers, Driana Gonzaga from New York and Estefania (Stef) and Joao (Jojo) Martins from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Driana invites Matt to a party at her house on Tuesday evening.
On Tuesday evening despite John's reluctance, Matt and John both attend Driana's party at her parents beautiful villa. During a walk on the beach Driana tells Matt that she is taking a year off after having graduated from the very expensive Blessed Heart High School and will be working at animal control. Driana loves animals and wants to be a vet. Matt finds himself attracted to her; "She was the rarest of kids my age: comfortable in her own skin. At ease with her money but not afraid to make fun of herself for it. Being around that balance of confidence and humility lit me up. She was plain cool. She was perfect."
As John and Matt are leaving, Driana asks if anyone has seen Stef. They find her phone and jeans on the stairs leading to the beach and realize that she's gone wind surfing. It is night and the moon is out when they barely spot Stef, riding the wind out to sea. Against the objections of John, Jojo decides to take out a fiberglass boat to retrieve her. Dri and Jojo get into the boat but John attempts to convince Matt that this is a terrible idea. There's no light on the boat and no radio and it's not made for the strong windy conditions they are experiencing. Matt is determined to go because of Dri and John reluctantly follows him into the boat.
They reach Stef just as her sail goes down and see that she is being circled by a large dolphin. Just before getting into the boat, Stef attempts to hug the dolphin who bucks its tail into the Windsurfer, breaking her arm. Dri and Matt dive into the water and get her into the boat. Stef is unconscious and bleeding from the head and her arm has suffered a compound fracture below the elbow. Matt manages to revive her but the artery in her arm is bleeding out fast. He ties a tourniquet made from an old towel around her arm, staunching the blood, but Matt knows she will lose the arm if they don't get back to land soon.
Now out of cell phone range and unable to contact parents or the coast guard, they try to use the engine to get back to shore but it is out of gas. Matt retrieves the surfboard and they lash Stef to the board to prevent her from moving when she awakens. Matt knows she will be in tremendous pain from her broken arm and she also has a concussion. Meanwhile John sets to taking apart the engine in the hopes of repairing it. He succeeds but tells them they do not have enough gas to get back to shore and that they need to save it. All four teens realize that it might be at least a day or more before anyone determine that they are missing and they won't know where they have gone.
The two remaining Brazilian teens are horrified at John's seemingly cold view of Stef prospects of surviving if they do not get to shore soon. John blames Stef for her stupid choice to go windsurfing at night, while Dri tries to defend her cousin whom she says has had a hard life. As Stef's condition continues to deteriorate, the other four teens keep a look-out with binoculars for passing ships.
The next day is brilliantly sunny and hot, so hot that everyone suffers from sunburn. Dri successfully rigs up a makeshift distiller to extract drinking water from the sea water. They see a sailboat and a speed boat but are unable to make contact. Stef's arm continues to worsen, although she becomes lucid for a time. During the first day Dri presses Matt about the bullet scars on his left shoulder. Jojo thanks Matt for saving Stef's life and notes how steady John is in a crisis.
It is at this point that the police begin to look into the disappearance of Matt and John because Matt's friend car which he borrowed, has not been returned. When the group wakes up on the second day they find that Stef has died. While Dri is dazed, Jojo is deeply upset at his girlfriend's death. Matt cannot seem to feel anything while John appears unaffected. After collecting water from a heavy downpour and also drinking as much as they can, Matt and Dri slip into the water beside the boat to cool off in the afternoon heat. Matt tells Dri how he came to have the bullet wounds in his back.
Having traced the car to the home of Rafael Gonzaga, police continue to look into both Matt and John. They now consider this a missing person case that includes Driana and Estefania as well as Jojo and begin searching the beach. On the boat the four remaining teens have wrapped Stef's body in the windsurfing sail. However, now they are plagued by flies which swarm around the body and bite the survivors. Jojo is covered in bites because he refuses to leave Stef's body or to place it into the sea. Eventually Dri convinces him to let her go and they place Stef on the windsurfer board and push her out onto the ocean.
By day five, John is working on creating a primitive harpoon in the hopes they can spear fish. Jojo's fly bites are not healing mainly because he can't stop picking at them. Jojo eventually reveals to Matt that he not only takes medication for his dermatitis but also mood stabilizers. By day seven Matt senses that a bad feeling has come into the boat. "It wasn't exactly anger. A menace, maybe. I didn't think Jojo was causing it, but he was picking up on it." John tells Matt that things will change in the boat if they do not find food soon. When Matt questions him, John tells him that the desire to survive can make a person do terrible things. "No food and the drive to survive can make a person do things he never thought he'd be able to do, especially when he's losing his mind. I'm telling you Matt, watch your back. Dri's too." John is warning Matt that Jojo is becoming increasingly unstable and may become dangerous. Just how much longer the four can hold out without food and almost no water is questionable. Even worse is the possibility of dangers they may face in the coming days; sharks, severe storms, dehydration and that one of them may become so dangerous that the unthinkable might need to be considered? Can they hold out until help arrives?
Adrift uses the lifeboat trope in which a group of people, in this case, five teens, adrift in a boat with little hope of immediate rescue, find their situation so dire that they begin to consider killing one of them to save the others. In this novel, Jojo is becoming increasingly angry and erratic. Trapped in a boat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, Jojo finds himself suddenly off his medications and having to cope not only with the life threatening physical conditions but also with the loss of his beloved girlfriend. As Jojo becomes unstable, John, Matt and Dri begin to argue over what to do with him. While Dri tries to support Jojo emotionally, John, who is practical, considers the possibility that they may have to kill him before he attacks one of them. When the realize that the land they drove the boat towards is merely an island of plastic, Matt states that this is when Jojo begins to act mean. John tries to be cautious about whether or not they should eat the rotted fish they find, but Jojo will not have John telling him what to do. Jojo tells him, "Watch yourself, John. You're making me angry." Later on as the sore on his leg is worsening, Jojo begins to lose hope. "Hope is so very draining. It's a bore, actually." He becomes morbid when Matt asks him about his medications telling him that he doesn't believe him being happy is the natural way things should be. "I think this, here, right now, the way I'm feeling: This is the true me. And I am so very angry. I don't even have the courage to kill myself. Who would build such a world? Tell me. A world where tests like this are commonplace?"
When John suggests that they be "proactive" rather than wait for Jojo to hit one of them with the hammer, Matt argues that his wounds will eventually kill him. But John counters, "Then if he's dead anyway, why not put him out of his misery?" Dri argues that Jojo is not himself and she challenges John about how he is viewing Jojo and their situation.
"I know where I am," she said. "I know exactly. And I'm not so lost that I don't know what I am too."
"And what's that?"
When Dri sticks up for Jojo, John maintains that their difficult situation now has stripped away the veneer to reveal the real people they are. "Why did those dudes shoot into my father's van? He's built that way. At heart, that's who he is. Sure, he's everybody's pal when things are easy, but turn up the heat a little, and now you're seeing the real Jojo." John tells Dri she doesn't know the real Jojo, only the medicated version of him.
Dri tells John that if they do murder Jojo it is something they will live with for the rest of their lives if they survive. "I'm scared of what I become if I murder somebody,"
John is correct in that the experience does reveal the strengths and weakness of each of the characters; John is a quiet effective leader ready to do whatever is necessary to survive, Matt with his knowledge of first aid is a protector and caring person, while Dri is motivated by doing what is right no matter what the circumstances.
Underlying the main story is a second story involving John, Matt and the murder of John's father.. Bit by bit, during the time in the boat, the horrific story is revealed. This event is the main motive for John following Matt into the boat - John believes he owes Matt for saving his life.
Not unexpectedly, being adrift in the Atlantic for fifteen days changes the survivors forever. They are unable to continue their friendships because their mere presence reminds each other of what they experienced. It's an interesting question to consider what makes some people so resilient in the face of catastrophe while others are completely undone. While John continues with his life plan to become an electrician, both Matt and Dri find themselves deeply changed. Instead of becoming a forest ranger, Matt works as an EMT.
Griffin spares his readers none of the gory details and some passages are especially graphic and therefore entirely realistic. His reason for placing the teenagers out in the ocean is entirely plausible (fact: teenagers at a party do stupid things). My only question is that it is unlikely Matt, John and Dri would have been able to eat much of anything once they were rescued. Nor would they be allowed to do so. Adrift is a good read, with an appealing cover, that should definitely be followed up with something light.
Adrift by Paul Griffin
New York: Scholastic Press 2015