Growing 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 with 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.
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.
Join me next month when I review Dancing Lessons by Olive Senior. It is a novel that will get you smiling.