Christa Comes Out of Her Shell

Christa Comes Out of Her Shell

by Abbi Waxman
Christa Comes Out of Her Shell

Christa Comes Out of Her Shell

by Abbi Waxman

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Overview

Just when she thought she’d gotten far enough away . . . a life-changing phone call throws an antisocial scientist back into her least favorite place—the spotlight. A hilarious and insightful new novel from the USA Today bestselling author of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill.

After a tumultuous childhood, Christa Barnet has hidden away, both figuratively and literally. Happily studying sea snails in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Christa finds her tranquil existence thrown into chaos when her once-famous father—long thought dead after a plane crash—turns out to be alive, well, and ready to make amends. The world goes wild, fascinated by this real-life saga, pinning Christa and her family under the spotlight. As if that weren’t enough, her reunion with an old childhood friend reveals an intense physical attraction neither was expecting and both want to act on . . . if they can just keep a lid on it. When her father’s story starts to develop cracks, Christa fears she will lose herself, her potential relationship, and—most importantly—any chance of making it back to her snails before they forget her completely.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593198780
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/16/2024
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 64,001
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Abbi Waxman, the USA Today bestselling author, is a chocolate-loving, dog-loving woman who lives in Los Angeles and lies down as much as possible. She worked in advertising for many years, which is how she learned to write fiction. She has three daughters, three dogs, three cats, and one very patient husband.

Read an Excerpt

1

So, I'm going to kick off by making one thing very clear: None of this was my fault. I was part of it, sure, but only like a flea is part of a cat. I was carried along, contributing my own pain-in-the-ass factor, no argument there, but I was not, in any sense, driving the bus. Let's not forget that when this story starts, I was literally on an island in the middle of nowhere. Hands full, head busy, heart well guarded. Safe as houses, baby.

Wait, that's not completely accurate. The island of Violetta isn't in the middle of nowhere; it's slightly to the right of Africa, many hundreds of miles into the Indian Ocean. It's a geographical, political and sociological anomaly. It's also home to a frozen vodka drink called the Barrier Island, beyond which no man may safely travel, but that's a sidenote. It lies two days' sail from a large French-speaking island more than five hundred miles off the east African coast, which is probably why the French didn't bother to claim it. It was ignored by the Mauritians, because they thought the French already nabbed it, and blithely disregarded by the British, who had no idea who owned it, but had no reason to think it was them.

No one paid much attention to it at all until the 1950s, when an enterprising young Violettan by the name of Agnes Bottlebrush did a school project on the even younger United Nations and then quietly applied for membership for Violetta (Agnes was an overachiever with time on her hands). As the result of a series of fortunate and slightly comedic events, Violetta became the smallest member of the United Nations, and Agnes received a rapid promotion to Head Girl. Then she walked around to everyone's houses and handed them a copy of the UN Charter and gathered suggestions for what to put on the flag.

Agnes's successful endeavors attracted the notice of the BBC, and they sent a camera crew, along with a reporter who'd been the quickest to raise his hand when asked, "Who wants to spend two weeks on a sunny island in the middle of nowhere?" (In a strange but not wholly unprecedented turn of events, that journalist's son married Agnes Bottlebrush's daughter'several decades later, proving something about destiny, or karma, or the importance of follow-up when it comes to good journalism.) Bear with me; there may be a test later.

The capital of Violetta, such as it is, is also called Violetta, and has a population of around two thousand, of which several hundred are visiting scientists of all kinds. Why, you may ask, are so many drawn so far for so little? Well, it all goes back to the island's anomalous nature and fortuitous location.

Geographically, the island is too far from the coast to be readily reached by casual travelers, too inhospitable to be easily settled and too daunting from a distance (cliffs on most sides and a whacking great volcano in the middle). This peaceful lack of interruption for millennia gave rise to flora and fauna that aren't seen anywhere else, which in modern times brings a steady stream of scientists to the yard.

I've been here longer than most because I've spent the last four years studying the impact of the Indian Ocean Dipole on bubble raft snails. (I'm sure you know this, but the IOD is a phenomenon wherein the western Indian Ocean gets hotter than the eastern part, in a fairly cyclical way, which causes all manner of problems, climate-wise.) The dipole is only one of numerous challenges the little buggers face in the course of their intensely private lives; they're really fascinating creatures.

I spend some of my time in the water, in a shallow-drafted boat loosely anchored about five hundred yards offshore, looking for my little bubbly colleagues, fishing them out, checking their data and putting them back in again. Much of the rest of my time is spent at the fishing dock, wallowing in bycatch, which is everything the fishermen caught and don't want. You wouldn't believe the things I've discovered, but you wouldn't be interested either, so trust me when I say I'm blowing the doors off the pelagic snail community. Dr. Christa Barnet, queen of the seas.

On any other dock in the world, someone asking to rummage through a stinking pile of dead creatures would at least raise an eyebrow. Fortunately for me, the inhabitants of Violetta have grown accustomed to strange behavior, weird questions and odd interests. At any given moment, half the population of the island is enrolled in some kind of scientific study, and the other half is taking a rest and refusing to fill out any more daft questionnaires. Agnes Bottlebrush has a lot to answer for. However, if you're going to be invaded by a small army, it's much better to get an army dedicated to protecting and maintaining your ecosystem, rather than pillaging your natural resources, destroying your culture and pointing out your inadequacies.

On this particular day, the sun was a high, creamy disk in the cornflower blue sky as I was pottering around in my boat, doing science. The boat was loosely tethered about thirty feet out so I could take shore water samples, and I was leaning over the edge and scooping while breathing somewhat heavily. I'm not a very big person, and I basically needed to hinge over the edge of the boat to reach the water. It may have been ungainly, but I wasn't expecting company, so when pebbles started hitting me in the ass, I was pretty quick to turn around. A little kid was hopping about on the shore. Not only was he lobbing pebbles, he was also clearly trying to convey something important, because his lips were making a series of wide, round shapes. As I was listening to '90s hits at a pretty decent volume, I couldn't hear a word.

I yanked out my earbuds and held up my hand. "Simon! Stop, I had my music on." I shook my earbuds like sad mini castanets, but Simon, who is the ten-year-old son of my landlady, kept hopping and yelling. Either he thought he had the voice of a god or I had the ears of a bat, possibly both. I scrambled around and started hand-over-handing the anchor rope, hauling closer to shore. It was only once I was much, much closer that I could make out even a single sentence. Unfortunately, the sentence I heard was "smash it with a hammer," which probably wasn't the best entry point.

"Mom says your phone keeps ringing," he said, which did explain the haste. Simon's mom, Miranda, runs the best boardinghouse on the island. Her cooking is legendary-and I've gained both weight and inner peace under the influence of her sauces-but so are her temper and caprice. Noise isn't tolerated, contracts are verbal and nonbinding, and I swallowed because now I was in trouble and Miranda scared the applesauce out of me.

"Is she mad?" I asked.

Simon shrugged. "She said to tell you it's rung seven times and if it rings again she's going to smash it with a hammer." This was obviously a quote, and he tried to soften it with a smile. "You know-for her, not so mad."

"Crap," I said. "Let's hurry."


The way back from the beach is through narrow, high-sided dune canyons filled with the island’s signature scent: dried salt and volcanic dust. The dunes are always in shadow, and you can feel the heat of the sun being snatched away the minute you step inside. They haven’t been underwater for centuries, so the sand is not only cool but soft and deeply dry. Simon loves to run halfway up one side, his little light-up sandals pushing sand falls onto the path, then slide down and run up the other. I followed more sedately, marveling at his daring combination of growing limbs and reckless disregard for the laws of physics.

A denim blue butterfly (Junonia rhadama) chased across the path ahead of us, her patterned wings looking like the world's smallest tie-dyed blouse. A rustle to my left made me jump, and I spotted a sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus) flinging himself into the undergrowth, his flash of black and white reminding me of James Bond evading snipers. I fell in love with Violetta at first sight from the bow of the ferry, and I'm still completely crushed out. The humans are less appealing than the wildlife, despite the fact many of them share my field of interest. Humans talk so much and look at you expectantly, as if you'd been paying attention. Fools.


My landlady, Miranda, was sitting outside her house, as usual, drinking iced tea and gossiping with her sister, who owned another boardinghouse across the street. They looked up and watched me coming toward them, doing everything I could to express my regret and apology from the minute they laid eyes on me; I crouched a little, I raised my shoulders, I held up both my hands and I essentially sprinted up the street, with a triumphant Simon trotting behind like a greyhound with the rabbit in its teeth. The best approach with Miranda was extensive flattery, a mutual but unspoken agreement that the fault always lay with the tenant, and simple staying power. I was her oldest tenant, in terms of time served, so I had a little leeway. Not a lot, you understand.

"It's still ringing!" she said, with (probably) mock ferocity. She narrowed her eyes, which missed nothing. "Take it with you or turn it off, I don't care which." I nodded apologetically and sped past her to go up to my room. She added, "Don't make me move you."

I screeched to a halt, literally raising a tiny cloud of dust, and backed up.

"Please don't," I said. "I promise it won't happen again." Distantly, but clearly, the damnable phone started ringing again. Miranda slowly started raising her eyebrows, which is the beginning of an expression most tenants only get to see once, so I booked it up the stairs two or three at a time. I heard her laughing with her sister, so hopefully that means she won't gut me like a fish later on.

I finally have the best room in the place, and it's taken me all four years to get it. With great power, as you know, usually comes great responsibility, but Miranda has great power and a total disinterest in being responsible for anything. When tenants came to the end of their research, or they ran out of funding, whichever happened first, they were responsible for finding a new tenant for their room. Miranda's ideal tenant was one who paid the rent on time and came to her on their last day and said, Thanks for everything, this is Professor Binglebangle, she's a geologist, she'll be taking over my room. People already living in the house got priority, which means people are nice to their housemates and offer blandishments and sometimes outright bribes to get better rooms.

In the course of my four years on the island, I'd charmed my way up to the top floor, and earlier this year had only one move left before I reached Room Twelve, my ultimate dream destination. I'd visited someone in that room in my first week or two and decided on the spot it would be mine. (I love An Objective.) It has a balcony bigger than the room itself, with two sets of arched French doors onto it, and a view of the volcano that means you'll be the first to know if the world is about to end. The sun fills the room, you can hear the ocean, it has two ceiling fans and yellow shutters and is my favorite place in the whole world. As luck would have it, a week or so after I attained the top floor, the tenant of Room Twelve (an easily distracted entomologist from Leiden University) somehow let his study subjects escape and the whole house had to be fumigated. I have no idea how it happened, but one plausible theory is he left a lid open one time when his door was unlocked. I helped pack up all the food before the fumigators arrived and was rewarded with his room.

However, the stairs up were no joke, and I was seeing stars by the time I flung the door open and started hunting for the phone, which of course stopped ringing the minute I put my hand on it.

Dammit. I looked at it: twelve missed calls in the last two hours, all of them from Mom. My mother being the force of nature she was, it could be about literally anything, but it was unlikely to be good if it mattered this much. I flicked to messages and saw I had numerous texts from her and both my sisters. Every text, from all three of them, said, Call me, which is honestly the most annoying text in the history of communication. Tell me more, and maybe I will. But order me to call you and my answer is going to be Make me. Besides, deductive reasoning indicated we were looking at some kind of family-wide issue, which meant I was now fighting the impulse to throw the phone out the window and hide under the bed. There was simply no way everyone needing to talk to me at once could be anything but bad news.

I glanced up from the phone screen and caught sight of myself in the mirror. With thoughts of my mother in my head, I straightened up and took a look. As always, I was wearing pieces from what she refers to as my "forest floor collection." It makes my life easier to wear khaki, green, olive or sand, because all of my clothes end up coated with seawater, salt lines and general beach muck. I researched and found the perfect pair of shorts, I researched and found the softest, most durable T-shirt, then bought four sets of both and never wear much else. Honestly, when Einstein did it, he was an eccentric genius; when Steve Jobs did it, he was a genius emulating an eccentric; and when I do it, I'm not making enough of an effort. Patriarchal bullshit; those are quality shorts.

I sighed at my reflection. I had a single strand of seaweed wrapped around my glasses and pulled it off to take a look. Not seaweed, but eelgrass, Zostera capensis. You're a long way from home, baby, I said to the plant (not out loud) and looked at myself again. To be honest, I looked like someone wearing a "geeky scientist" Halloween costume. However, while my clothes are shades of green and fawn, my hair is colorful and so are my tattoos, because those things are literally part of me, and for that I make an effort.

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