Book Review : The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

by - 3/16/2008

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

Author: Joshilyn Jackson

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (March 4, 2008)

Book Description

Laurel Gray Hawthorne needs to make things pretty, whether she's helping her mother make sure the literal family skeleton stays in the closet or turning scraps of fabric into nationally acclaimed art quilts. Her estranged sister Thalia, an impoverished Actress with a capital A, is her polar opposite, priding herself on exposing the lurid truth lurking behind middle class niceties.

While Laurel's life seems neatly on track--a passionate marriage, a treasured daughter, and a lovely home in suburban Victorianna--everything she holds dear is suddenly thrown into question the night she is visited by the ghost of a her 13-year old neighbor Molly Dufresne. The ghost leads Laurel to the real Molly floating lifelessly in the Hawthorne's backyard pool.

Molly's death is inexplicable--an unseemly mystery Laurel knows no one in her whitewashed neighborhood is up to solving. Only her wayward, unpredictable sister is right for the task, but calling in a favor from Thalia is like walking straight into a frying pan protected only by Crisco. Enlisting Thalia's help, Laurel sets out on a life-altering journey that triggers startling revelations about her family's guarded past, the true state of her marriage, and the girl who stopped swimming.

Richer and more rewarding than any story Joshilyn Jackson has yet written, yet still packed with Jackson's trademarked outrageous characters, sparkling dialogue, and defiantly twisting plotting, THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING is destined both to delight Jackson's loyal fans and capture a whole new audience.


Compelling, haunting (no pun intended) and poignant are the words that come to mind when I try to sum up this novel. To put it simply, I loved it. However, I didn’t fall in love with it right away. In fact, I found it quite confusing to begin with. But my feelings gradually changed as I got deeper and deeper into the story and had better understanding of the characters. Everything in this Joshilyn Jackson story leads up to, revolves around and hinges on solving Molly’s death. And yet, it’s the characters, more than anything else, who constitute the true mystery in this novel.

I didn’t really get the protagonist, Laurel, at first. She was a mystery to me, as much as the corpse floating in her pool was a mystery to Laurel. Over the course of the story, I got to discover how Laurel’s seemingly perfect life isn’t perfect at all. Although Laurel is this famous maker of innovative quilts with an affluent cookie-cutter perfect life in the suburbs with her computer nerd of a husband and a precocious daughter, her entire life has been and continues to be haunted by DeLop.

This seedy and impoverished former mining community is where Laurel’s mother hails from and to whose faults that lady has conveniently blinded herself from. Although Laurel despises this willful blindness in her mother, Molly’s death forcibly makes her comprehend how without realizing it, she herself has adopted her mother’s attitude. Whether this results in a tragedy like her mother’s did once before, makes for some very tense and expectant reading.

Another main character is that of Thalia, Laurel’s older sister who’s a born-actress. Although this character is referenced to quite frequently, she doesn’t put in an actual appearance until well into the story. By then, I’d read such conflicting descriptions of her as to be quite befuddled as to what to expect. What she turns out to be is more than expected and yet less. Confusing? You bet! But that’s exactly what Thalia is – an enigma, as much as Laurel, and yet different. The sisters are polar opposites and yet their shared past, their not-so salubrious history binds them together and gives them something in common – a tragedy.

Haunted by memories, Laurel buries herself in a quiet and boring suburban life while Thalia deals with it by celebrating the ugliness of life and indulging in outrageous behavior. This makes her ideal for investigating Molly’s death for only she can burrow under the social façade of the Stepford-like life in suburban Victorianna and strip it away to reveal the rot underneath. And so Laurel invites her over little realizing that Thalia will begin her work by peeling away the anesthetized cover of her own marriage.

The strength of Jackson’s writing lies as much in her powerful and lifelike characterizations as it does in evocative storytelling. As a result, every character in this book, no matter how minor, is of interest. In the end, I identified with them all, even the dead girl and the cold mother … except for the Uncle. Without revealing the story, suffice to say that I just didn’t get why he behaved the way he did (was he sick, or enacting some revenge against Laurel’s mother, or both? or was it quite something else?).

Throughout the story, the author raises expectations of how things might turn out to be or how a character might behave under given circumstances. And every time, without fail, predictability fails. Or at least, it did for me. Every time I thought I had a handle on things than Jackson yanked away the figurative rug beneath my feet. This I enjoyed, more than anything else.

And lest I forget, the pivotal mystery of the girl who stopped swimming is beautifully maintained throughout the length of the book. And only towards the very end is the shocking truth revealed. 'Masterful' is the only word to describe how Jackson ekes out the suspense without making it tedious or predictable.

In Short

Although fellow bookworms had strongly recommended this author to me, this is the very first Joshilyn Jackson book I’ve ever read. But it’s certainly not going to be the last. I loved this story and impatiently count the days until her next book comes out.

Kudos for a superb story, Joshilyn!

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