The First Rule of Swimming

The First Rule of SwimmingGrowing up on a secluded island of Croatia, sisters Magdalena and Jadranka have learned from their grandfather, the importance of swimming.  The first rule is to make sure you can stay afloat.  In life, they try very hard to do just that, when family secrets find their way back to haunt them after they have grown into young women.  One of the biggest challenges is accepting the fact that they are only half-sisters; Magdalena is the eldest and when she finds out that Jadranka has a different father, she tries to keep this news hidden  from her for as long as she can.
They are raised by their grandparents, since their mother lives on the mainland and has nasty rumours surrounding her.  They also find out at a young age that their uncle had left Croatia for his own safety, during desperate times of war and that his present location is a mystery.  Jadranka knows that she is quite different from her sister and she has the feeling of not belonging.  She is restless, artistic and cannot spread her wings stuck on the island.  She gets an invitation from her cousin (Katarina) in New York, to try her luck there but Jadranka also has other reasons for going across.
When Katarina calls Magdalena to inform her of Jadranka’s sudden disappearance, tension and worry mounts.  Magdalena visits her mother and demands to know the truth from the past.  Their mother, Ana, holds her tongue and allows her older daughter to go search for the younger sibling in America.  It is not long before Ana herself follows her daughter with vital information that might just reveal where Jadranka has hidden.
While stubborn Jadranka is trying to discover who she is and who her real father is, their grandfather is dying and their uncle’s whereabouts have been revealed.  No matter what, Magdalena is just as determined to find her sister and prove to her that their bond is stronger than any sibling tie could be.
This novel spells out the importance of sisterhood, whether or not it is blood related.  It also shows how family secrets can cause more pain and anger than if things were initially mentioned.  In addition, we can see how war can cause much chaos within families because of dangerous situations.  Sacrifices are made with good intentions but may be misunderstood—as in this story.

If you are a member of the library, we have this title currently in Hard copy (F B8627f) only.  This may or may not change in the future.  Please check the catalog frequently for an update of formats.

To read reviews on The First Rule of Swimming, please click on the links below.
From The New York Times.

From Washington Independent Review of Books.

For information on Courtney Angela Brkic, click below:

Discussion Questions
Although at the back of the book it says that a reading group guide can be found from the publisher online, it was not there.  I searched high and low for questions and came up with nothing.  So, I must resort yet again to my own.

1-When Magdalena finds out that they do not share the same father, why do you think she wants to keep this knowledge from Jadranka?

2-Why does their mother, Ana, end up with an abusive boyfriend?

3-Why is Rosmarina such a burden to Jadranka?

4-How do you think Nona Vinka knew about Jadranka?

5-Why is Katarina jealous of Jadranka’s artistic skills and why does she invite her to New York, if this is the case?

6-Why doesn’t Marin bring his sons to visit his birthplace once it is finally safe to do so?

7-How does Jadranka find out about her uncle Marin’s whereabouts?

8-Why doesn’t Jadranka get in touch with Magdalena when she decides to leave Katarina’s house?  Why doesn’t she want to be found?

9-Why doesn’t Ana finally tell her daughters, when they are adult women, the truth about Jadranka’s paternity?

10-Do you believe that everyone finds out the truth about everything in the end?

Interesting Tidbit
Rosmarina is just a fictional island in the story but I did not know that Croatia actually had more than one thousand islands and islets off its shores.  Only 50 of these are actually inhabited today.  One of the remotest islands is called Zirje, so I guess it can be likened to Rosmarina in that resepct but I don’t know how long it takes to get there.  For more information on these islands click on the following link:

This book reminded me of …
There were several titles that I thought about because there were many themes running through this book.  One of the novels was The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler.  The idea of someone running away without a trace is shared between these stories, even if Jadranka is not a mother leaving her child.  Téa Obreht’s, The Tiger’s Wife came to my mind because it takes place very near Croatia (in the Balkan Peninsula) and there is the grandfather relationship too.  It also reminds me of The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard because of the half-sister relationship.  In terms of The Virgin Cure and The Painted Girls, these had daughters who did not have close connections to their mothers, just as in The First Rule of Swimming

Favorite quote from book:
“It bothered her that so few people knew of Rosmarina—even among New York’s Croatian population—as though it were a mythical kingdom like Atlantis.  It seemed to cast doubt on her sister’s existence by association.  As if one day Magdalena would pull out the photograph she carried for sentimental reasons—a shot of the sisters in a Split photo booth—only to discover a picture of herself, sitting alone.” (p. 173)

Most revealing moment in the story:
When we find out that Ana is not the women people say she is. (p. 242)

Next month’s title:
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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4 Responses to The First Rule of Swimming

  1. An excellent read as was Aminatta Forn’a The Hired Man.

    • Melissa says:

      Haven’t heard of that one—I should take a look! Thanks for your comment 🙂

    • Melissa says:

      We have it at the library! I will pick it up … does sound good.

      • Great! I am sure you will appreciate it all the more for having read Brkic. Aminatta Forna is such an interesting writer in term of the subjects she is able to project through the storytelling nature of the novel. Powerful in a quiet, considered way. This book made me want to hear her read and speak of her own experience, she clearly learnt so much more than what she shares on the pages, we can feel it in her words.

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