The First Rule of Swimming is the story of two sisters, Magdalena and Jadranka, and a family living on an island in Croatia that is faced with the difficulties of a communist regime and the Yugoslavian wars.
When, during the time she lives in the United States with her cousin, Jadranka goes missing, Magdalena rushes after her. Magdalena is used to Jadranka fleeing every once in a while, but she usually lets Magdalena know where she is going. This time is different.. And Magdalena tries to trace her by following her sister to the US, while simultaneously tracing her family’s deepest secrets that have been tearing at the seams little by little over decades.
My reasons for reading this were.. well.. look at that stunning cover! No, seriously, it was the cover plus the fact that I like stories of families and their intertwinement with history. I find stories of sisters particularly appealing, so that about covers it.
The First Rule of Swimming takes its time setting up the characters and their relationships to each other. It has a quiet and slow quality to it that suits the book and the story it tells very well. In places, it reminded me a little of Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence. It really tries to do the impact of grand historical issues on family relationships justice. The prose is pretty and engaging, the characters endearing and at times just infuriating enough to make them feel like real people.
However, there are reasons why I am caught in generalities when discussing this book, even if I cannot quite pinpoint them. While, on the one hand, I feel I really got to know the family portrayed, can glimpse their lives and thoughts in my mind even days after reading with the tinge of a smile on my face, on the other hand the story failed to right-out grab me, forcing me to continue reading and really deeply care. It is not that I felt it was too slow in the beginning, as some might argue it was. That never bothered me. It is not that the characters were not well-rounded, or that their interests were not clear. Because they definitely were. It is just that, somehow, somewhere, the real spark was missing for me.
I would have settled for that, appreciating the story for what it is and what it accomplishes to do. I would have given it four out of five stars if I still did ratings.. if it were not for the scenes in the latter part of the book. Without giving anything away, in the latter parts of the story events take a turn. There are grand things happening. Things that, frankly, seemed a little farfetched in relation to the rest of the story. I wonder at this need for a grand finale, a climax, even in a book that has its careful depiction, its quietude, its slowness, as one of its best qualities. I am not saying things could never have happened this way. I am saying that, to me, it seemed a little unlikely. And in being so, it spoiled some of what I appreciated in the story thus far. I would have liked a resolution that was less.. out there? somehow.
Pretty cover, beautiful prose, a decent set-up, and a novel that takes its time to fully emerge you into its setting and characters – The First Rule of Swimming had a lot going for it, even more so because of the small details that managed to become meaningful, come full-circle, in the end.. but ultimately, it failed to convince me, mostly because of the events in the last part of the story. A shame really. I feel this deserves a more positive evaluation for what it manages to accomplish in the beginning, but I cannot quite shake the disappointment of the ending.
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