“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.”
My Thoughts: The First Rule of Swimming is one of those quiet novels in which there is not much in the way of action; yet, the story never ceases to captivate. The story moves back and forth between Jadranka and Magdalena, with the occasional side excursion into the minds of a few other family members, as they reminisce on their past that brought them to their current point. There is love and loss, betrayal, jealousy, longing, and every other emotion that humans feel built within that past, and it is in how they adjust to and accept it all that gives these characters vibrancy and depth. The fact that their memories include living through a war about which most Americans know very little only adds to the story’s appeal.
What I find the most interesting about The First Rule of Swimming is that while we get to know Magdalena and Jadranka intimately, they still serve as symbols for an entire generation that grew up in a Communist country during the tumultuous Cold War and post-Communist years. Very few Westerners will be able to understand the upheaval such regime changes caused on not just the socio-economic aspect of society. The psychological ramifications of such an existence appear slight when viewed from the relative safety of a democratic, modernized society that never had to deal such changes. Yet, through the two sisters and their extended family and their status as representatives of everyone who grew up in that era and in similar conditions, Westerners get an inside glimmer of such hardships, mental and physical.
The lasting impression one has upon finishing The First Rule of Swimming is one of serenity, not only for its cover but also for the message that resides within its pages. There is a rhythm to the story that reminds you that every family has their ups and downs, just as every family has certain skeletons they would like to remain hidden or bad eggs they would like to forget. Yet, family matters most in any situation, whether it is the family into which you are born or the family you make with others. After the hardships, betrayals, and loss, one finds comfort in the constancy of such a lesson.
The First Rule of Swimming is not the type of book you truly enjoy. It is beautiful in a tragic sense. It opens your eyes to another culture, another lifestyle. For a chance to learn a bit more about war-torn Croatia, I am glad I read it, and it is the type of story that will stay with me, if anything because of its gorgeous cover and simple message hinted at in the title. Yet, for all its simplicity, I do not believe it is not a novel for the masses. It is a bit too subtle and too quiet; I fear most people would find the story rather boring and somewhat predictable. Yet, for those who take the time to savor and reflect, The First Rule of Swimming can be a rewarding experience.