Magdalena does not panic when she learns that her younger sister has disappeared. A free-spirit, Jadranka has always been prone to mysterious absences. But when weeks pass with no word, Magdalena leaves the isolated Croatian island where their family has always lived and sets off to New York to find her sister. Her search begins to unspool the dark history of their family, reaching back three generations to a country torn by war.
A haunting and sure-footed debut by an award-winning writer, The First Rule of Swimming explores the legacy of betrayal and loss in a place where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, and where individuals are forced to make wrenching choices as they are swept up in the tides of history
Author: Courtney Angela Brkic
Length: 336 pages
After Jadranka leaves their island home and isn’t heard from for weeks, Magdalena eventually becomes concerned. Leaving behind her grandparents, and her life on Rosmarina, Magdalena reluctantly travels to New York to search for her younger and somewhat flighty sister. That gorgeous cover drew me in, and I couldn’t resist finding out more about The First Rule of Swimming. The blurb, combined with absolutely glowing reviews led me to request it, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t for me.
The First Rule of Swimming switches narratives and also time frames, spanning three generations and giving insight into varying opinions of Rosmarina and the trials it has faced. Whilst I loved the concept, it just didn’t work for me. It took me a while to get to grips with who everyone was, and since I’m usually a big fan of narrative switching, I can’t help thinking the writing style had to play a part in that. Towards the second half of the book, I also ended up bored of certain perspectives, since they seemed to stall without going anywhere.
As a few other reviewers have mentioned, I didn’t feel that quite enough context was given on the history of the area, and as someone with pretty poor history knowledge, I ended up doing background research to keep up! Once I’d got to grips with the characters and the background, the book started to pick up for me, particularly towards the end. The dramatic climax contrasted with the majority of the book which felt a bit slow and overly flowery to me.
I didn’t honestly love any of the characters. Luka, the girls’ grandfather was originally one of my favourite characters, but I felt like his chapters weren’t really achieving anything towards the end of the book, which got frustrating. I sometimes liked Jadranka, and wanted her to find the answers she was looking for, but at other times she came across more fool-hardy and reckless than free-spirited. Magdalena similarly was a character I couldn’t quite decide about, sometimes coming across as likable, and others coming across as rigid and old-fashioned. I was much more intrigued by the characters which were revealed slowly, such as Marin and Ana.
I really wanted to like The First Rule of Swimming, but it just wasn’t for me. Once I got into the book, I enjoyed the plot well enough, but I wasn’t particularly gripped by it, probably because I didn’t feel I could really connect with any of the characters. All in all, I personally found The First Rule of Swimming just okay. I do think it’d make a good book club pick though, and that I would have enjoyed it more if read slowly, savoured and discussed. I’m definitely in the minority, with most reviews being very positive, so if it appeals to you, give it a chance! I suspect my opinion is more based on my personal reading preferences, and the fact that I’d rather have an action-packed fantasy novel.
Buy it? Definitely a library book for me.
In a nutshell: Just not for me.