[I have had the good fortune to receive a number of advanced review copies of Little, Brown titles from NetGalley and will be sharing my reviews with you over the next few weeks. I hope that a few of these books find their way onto your summer reading lists.]

The First Rule of Swimming, by Courtney Angela Brkic (Little, Brown and Co, 2013) is a novel about family, forgiveness, and memory. Set on a small island far off the Croatian coast, Brkic’s story of two sisters begins slowly, almost languidly, much as one could imagine swimming through the pellucid waters around Rosmarina on a hot summer afternoon. Soon, however, the pace picks up and the reader finds herself turning the pages more and more quickly, following the unfolding of one family secret after another.

Magda, the older of the sisters, is such a constant person that she seems rooted to the soil of the island she grew up on. Rather than following love and starting a family of her own, she has chosen to look after her elderly grandparents and works as a teacher in the local school.

The younger sister, Jadranka, is as restless as Magda is rooted. An artist given to rash decisions, she takes the opportunity offered by a cousin to move to New York City. She quickly finds herself moving in more and more dangerous circles. Then she disappears.

When Magda learns of her sister’s disappearance, she uproots herself and flies to New York to find her sister again. In the process, she re-encounters people from her past and learns a number of bitter truths about herself and her family.

As Grandfather Luka tells his grand-daughters when he teaches them to swim, “The first rule of swimming is to float.” And yet simply floating, being carried along on the current, is not enough to save Jadranka. Magda must dive deep, past the debris of their painful childhood and her own unwillingness to engage fully with life to bring her sister safely to shore again.

Brkic’s writing is simple and powerful; as she crafts her story about three generations of the Babic family she never loses sight of their ties to each other, and to the rocky island that is their home. Her characters are well-drawn and grounded in the author’s understanding that while the places and events that shape us can be very different, the essential stuff we are made of is very much the same.

Nature itself, in the form of the sea, is as powerful a presence in this novel as are the family members. One can see and smell the blue-green waters that separate Rosmarina from the mainland as they lap or pound against the shore. The sea gives the islanders life and takes it away; it protects them from the greater turmoil of a country that has suffered over and over again from strife and oppression, though never fully.

The First Rule of Swimming is an engaging and thoughtful novel that I highly recommend.

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