Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

I did something truly bizarre last week. I read a current book of fiction--something that's actually popular right now.

I'm always playing catch-up, not just with laundry and dust-bunnies, but with popular culture. I generally get excited about books that other people read years ago. But a couple of weeks ago, a colleague recommended a book called The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, by Joshilyn Jackson. In fact, she handed it to me, or I probably still wouldn't have gone out and looked for it. I opened it up and this was the first sentence: "Until the drowned girl came to Laurel's bedroom, ghosts had never walked in Victorianna."

Whoa! That's my kind of beginning. I'm not into the occult and don't like books that dwell on that sort of thing, but I love a little creepiness right around the edges. And the ghosts in this book are more of the literary sort--kind of like Hamlet's father, who shows up to make Hamlet realize there's something rotten in Denmark.

The ghost of Molly, whose body is found floating in Laurel's swimming pool, seems to be making a similar point. After all, how did a thirteen-year-old girl end up dead in Laurel's yard in the middle of the night? Why was she even in their back yard? Does Laurel's own thirteen-year-old daughter have anything to do with it? Laurel's husband? Is there a pervert sheltering in one of the neighborhood's pretty Victorian homes?

Laurel doesn't feel she has the emotional stamina to pursue these questions, so she calls in her bold, unconventional sister to help her investigate. As they interact, it becomes apparent that this isn't the first violent death in their family, or the first ghost to try to draw Laurel's attention.

Although the story kept me turning the pages from start to finish, I was afraid I saw exactly where this book was going. Victorianna is a pleasant suburb where people seem content with their jobs and families and traditional lives--including Laurel and her family--but I've read enough books that start with a premise like that. Based on past experience, I expected Laurel to realize how shallow that life is, what a sham her marriage is, how unsatisfying it is to be just a mother.

Laurel's sister, Thalia, certainly seems determined to draw Laurel to that conclusion. So I braced myself for the finish--and was pleasantly surprised. I can't say much more without giving away all the delicious twists and surprises, but just let me say I found the ending to be positive and satisfying.

Even so, I have to warn you that this is most definitely a secular book. As I mentioned, I don't read a lot of current, secular fiction so the foul language and sexual references that occasionally sprang up jarred me. If you're trying to stay away from that sort of thing altogether, you might want to give this one a miss.

I'm glad I read The Girl Who Stopped Swimming because it reminds me of the theme and structure of one of my works-in-progress, and it's quite well-written. It weaves in the secrets from the past with a current crisis in a seamless way. It also breaks some rules that I, too, would love to flaunt. For example, that opening that I loved is in the much-maligned omniscient point of view. Oh, and have you writers ever heard the "rule" that you can't give back-story until page 35? Jackson begins the back story in the second paragraph. And it works! In fact, both these devices made the story richer to me--and I want to learn to do that.


  1. I read everything Joshilyn Jackson writes as soon as I can get my hands on it!!! If you haven't read her first two books, gods in Alabama and In Between, Georgia, you're missing some fabulous fiction! In fact, I liked her first two books better than The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, I think, although I agree that it did have a surprisingly positive message. This author is so clever. I love the way she writes.

  2. Hmm, sounds like a book I need to look into. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and special thanks for not giving away the ending! I hate it when people do that!! :-)

  3. Sounds good, Robin. I want to read it! And as always, good writing is good writing, and if it is good, stupid rules should not matter!