Another one of those books that surprised me when I discovered it had found a place in my heart, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming has everything a great book should have: round characters, a compelling conflict, great dialogue, and a smooth writing style. Joshilyn Jackson's plotting and pace makes this an easy book to read; I never feel like I have to skim at any point. This is especially true around the climax, when the characters each experience personal crises while confronting the plot's final twist before revealing the last battle.
I must confess when I began reading this book, I had pictured in my mind "Desperate Housewives if it were a paranormal mystery series." Not one to watch Desperate Housewives or read paranormal mysteries, I was sceptical going in, hoping that something about the characters or the writing style would keep me afloat. I'm glad to say that I was pleasantly surprised.
The protagonist, Laurel, is a complex character full of excellent observations and equally annoying flaws. Her major flaw is her sister, Thalia. In other words, Thalia brings out the worst in Laurel, because Thalia is everything Laurel is not, even if sometimes--if only for a brief, infinitesimal moment--Laurel wishes she could be those things. The truth is, as Laurel eventually (and predictably) decides, Laurel's quite happy with her life the way it is: husband, daughter, and quilt-making career. But the journey she makes with her sister through the course of this novel is a necessary one, born out of a need to heal the rift between them and close a long-open chapter of their shared familial past.
In portraying this, Jackson never patronizes her reader. She doesn't dumb this down into a Desperate Housewives-like drama, because she doesn't break the fourth wall and wink at the audience that this is supposed to be funny. There's plenty of humour in the story--much of it coming from the narrator's limited perspective hovering over Laurel's shoulder and peeking into her mind--but it's all careful and deliberate, intended to facilitate and emphasize the creation of dichotomies rather than mock them.
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is rife with dichotomies: the harsh contrast of Laurel's neighbourhood, suburban Victoriana--or as Thalia calls it, "Stepfordiana"--with the sisters' mother's childhood milieu, hick-country DeLop, Alabama, where the average inhabitant is lucky to have a fifth-grade level of education. The differences between these two settings becomes an important part of the plot, for they influence the differences between Laurel's daughter, Shelby, and the daughter's pen pal from DeLop, Bet.
And finally there's the dichotomy of Laurel and Thalia, two sisters who seem to be utter opposites. Acting mainly as Laurel's foil, Thalia emphasizes her sister's bland personality, criticizing her marriage and postulating that she had only one child so she could control every move Shelby could make and keep her safe. It's Thalia who threatens to widen the crack in Laurel and David's marriage by planting the seeds of suspicion of adultery in her sister's mind. And it's Thalia who needles, prods, and finally encourages Laurel to jump into the deep end and confront the person she needs to be, to surrender to the insanity temporarily so she can learn it, master it, and never again fear her ghosts.
I love Jackson's writing style, particularly how she handles dialogue. She's great at catching characters' personalities in their voices. Thalia's diction is larger-than-life, her allusions to theatre and entertainment perfect for her diaphanous and ephemeral self. Likewise, David's syntax is surgical and sterile, except when he's talking to Laurel about how he feels for her. As Laurel observes, he doesn't quite use the word feels, but his words glow with emotion anyway. Little of the dialogue feels like filler, which is something I find present in even the best of books.
I'm glad that Jackson downplayed the paranormal aspect that the copy on the inside cover seemed so eager to play up. As far as I interpret it, Laurel's ghosts are symbolic more than they are literal, and I like it that way. Don't get me wrong--I love ghost stories, and I love fantasy and magic. But in the world Jackson creates in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, that sort of magic would have destroyed the magic already there, a different kind of magic.
By the end of this book, I was immersed in the adventure of the two Gray sisters. I cheered for Laurel when she finally, irrevocably became her own person. I cheered for David when he displayed an uncharacteristic ability to seize the day. I cheered for Thalia when she seamlessly changed from flighty, snapping sister to a concerned aunt who would kill to ensure her niece's safety. And I gasped when all of this was threatened by the plot twist and the uncertainty of the greyness beyond the climax.
I'm not sure if this is a book I could read again. As much as I loved it, I doubt it would be as good the second time through, since I would be well aware of the ending. I could see myself enjoying the interplay between the two sisters again, but I doubt it would compare to the first reading. Still, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming may not be eminently repeatable, but it is eminently readable. It earned each of those five stars.