Recommendation for and also published at GreatNewBooks.org
The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kettler
I love finding a book that is impossible to put down, especially when it’s fun to read and the story sweeps me into the pages. But it’s rare to find a book that is not only unputdownable, but also beautifully written, each word and scene carefully wrought. This is the case with The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. From the opening page of The First Time She Drowned, the clean, meaningful writing combined with the compelling story makes for a book that is impossible to stop reading.
Officially a Young Adult book, The First Time She Drowned is about eighteen-year-old Cassie O’Malley as she stands at a crossroads in her life. Since age sixteen, Cassie has lived in an adolescent mental hospital, turned in and left there by her parents for reasons she does not understand. At eighteen, Cassie ages out and is provided the opportunity to attend college, a chance to begin her life anew. Thus, the crossroads. But the outside world is full of unknowns, especially when she hasn’t been given any tools to cope. The characters who enter her life at the crossroads are vibrant and flawed, and play an essential role in Cassie’s emergence.
Difficult memories surface throughout the story, which Cassie has to face, unpack, and try to understand. Through it all, her voice shines and the story unfolds effortlessly.
“Everything I thought I knew about myself needs to be reexamined in light of this new information.”
What becomes clear from the start is the type of psychological and emotional damage Cassie’s parents have done to her. Though her mother left the more indelible marks, her father also is tied to the damage in that he never stepped in to stop her mother. The traditional parental roles which should have been there to love and protect created just the opposite in Cassie’s life. As the reader, I needed to know how Cassie would be able to overcome such insurmountable odds.
Kletter writes with skill about the confusion Cassie has to face. When Cassie’s mother tells Cassie she is unlovable and that her issues are her own fault, Cassie begins to have moments of clarity to see her mother as she is—a mother who focuses on herself and her own needs, sacrificing her children’s safety and sanity, constantly.
The First Time She Drowned is about an awakening, of a human being coming to find that she has worth, that she has something to offer the world even after an entire lifetime of being told that she does not. The story is not unfamiliar to me. I found myself cheering for Cassie as she found her feet and began to stand. I rooted for her when she doubted herself, when she heard the voices and trauma from her past which threatened to pull her back below the surface.
“The sea is the color of metal, the white waves disheveled and sloshing in a tantrum. The ocean calls to me with its baptismal promise. I shed my jeans and sweater. Today I leave my history behind. Make the past the past, as James always said. Today, right now, I start over. A new me. Or something like that…”
It is a story of immeasurable triumph, of coming face-to-face with the things we may believe, which are untrue. Though Cassie’s parents, warped by psychological illness, harmed her for the first eighteen years of her life, Cassie finds hope that through the help of others, she can overcome her scarred past.
It is for books like these that I read. For isn’t it through learning from another’s experience that we can gain insights into our own?
This is a book for adults and young adults alike, one perfect for book clubs and mother-daughter discussions. It is one for those with painful pasts and difficult upbringings, who will feel lighter and lifted up above the surface, to breathe, if even for the first time.