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The Sign for Drowning

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“The morning Megan drowned was very bright, and no one was thinking of danger.”

Anna has grown up haunted by her younger sister’s death. In the life she constructs as a barrier against the emotional wreckage of her family tragedy, Anna settles comfortably into a career as a teacher of deaf children. But a challenge arrives—in the form of a young girl. Adrea’s disarming vulnerability and obvious need for love offer Anna the possibility of reconnecting with the world around her—if she has the courage to open her heart.

In this debut novel, Rachel Stolzman has crafted a moving and poetic witness to love’s power to transcend grief, pain, and the constraints of human language. The Sign for Drowning is a poignant story of loss and the unexpected occasions of grace that enable us to heal from it and grow beyond it.

192 pages, Hardcover

First published June 10, 2008

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About the author

Rachel Stolzman

1 book13 followers
Rachel Stolzman received her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has received several awards. A resident of Brooklyn, The Sign for Drowning is her first novel.

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5 stars
25 (15%)
4 stars
53 (33%)
3 stars
55 (34%)
2 stars
24 (15%)
1 star
2 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 54 reviews
Profile Image for Robyn.
120 reviews12 followers
August 12, 2009
I struggled with what to give this book not only as a rating but as a review.

It's definitely well written. And the plot is interesting. But I feel like by the end it sort of fell off a bit. And there were times that I got bored by what I was reading.

It's short; but there's detail despite its short length (just about 200-ish pages).

I just wish there was a little more oomph in the story and the plot. I kept feeling like something was missing. It also didn't help that I didn't really feel for the characters for some reason. They may have been what was so hard for me reading this; if I cared more about the characters than maybe I would've cared more about their actions.
Profile Image for Micky.
54 reviews1 follower
July 18, 2009
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this short novel in which we follow the journey of a young woman from her tragic witnessing of her little sister's drowning and the collapse of her family around this horrible accident to eventual healing through the experience of taking a little deaf girl into her empty life. Speaking in first person, Anna relates that she learned sign language at the age of eight, telling us "I talked with my hands to my sister who wasn't deaf but couldn't hear." The novelists writes in beautiful, spare prose, and the story spoke to my heart. Anyone who has had to carry the memory of a tragic childhood memory will connect immediately with the world of Anna, and even those who had an ordinary childhood will find this an excellent story, filled with both sadness and great joy. I recommend it highly.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
214 reviews2 followers
September 12, 2018
First reread. It's not easy to write a novel, period. It's not easy to write a novel that gets below the surface of things - that is about slow progression and significant spans of emotional history relating to (for instance) surviving trauma and raising a child. And it's not easy to do all of this while maintaining a prose style that is calm, clear and concise. The first time I read the novel was before my divorce, and the horror of the first pages cast a shadow over the whole novel. I remembered it as overwhelmingly sad. Now I see that while all the action of the novel falls under the shadow of a devastating loss, Stolzman has achieved a richer palette of colors within that shadow than I'd originally recognized. She struggles to end the novel, as how could you not when you're engaging with life and its constant flow of challenge, change, withdrawal and stagnation? I expect to be able to reread the novel again in a few years and find it richer still.
Profile Image for Heather.
183 reviews18 followers
August 25, 2009
Rating B+

Review I read this book with a smile on my face and a lump in my throat nearly the entire way through. Then, when I was done, I returned to the front of the book and immediately re-read some of my favorite passages. My favorite parts centered around the character of Adrea and how she touched those around her. The stories of when Adrea's adoption certificate comes, Adrea finding the African violet plants at the market, Adrea getting dressed up for the poetry reading, and Adrea making her first cow-related sounds in France were charming and moving to read.

Further solidifying this short novel as a sheer pleasure to read was Stolzman's prose. Her background as a poet came through in her wonderful turns of phrases. From the beginning scenes that gripped you, as Anna watched her family frantically realize that her sister was drowning, the language of this book worms its way into your heart and mind.

But lest I give you the impression that this book was perfect, let me justify my rating of a B+. First, as I read this book of a child adopted out of foster care, my mind immediately went to the young people I work with each summer who are part of the foster care system (check out Royal Family Kids Camp for details on this organization), and I was surprised by the language development of Adrea. Most of our children are delayed in their speech and reading skills because they haven't been in a supportive, nurturing environment that will develop those skills, but Adrea actually had exceptional communication skills. Her understanding of abstract concepts exceeded what I have learned in my educational theory classes is standard for a five-year-old. I ran this discontinuity past my stepmother, who is an ASL interpreter, and she was surprised at the idea of a deaf child being in a foster home that wasn't with deaf foster parents from the age of 15 months to 5 years (as is the case with Adrea in this story). She said that in most major cities, it holds true for Indianapolis and she imagined it would be the same in NYC, that the deaf community takes great pains to work with the CPS system to make sure that all deaf children are placed into deaf foster homes. Maybe it's not that way in NYC, but it was just a little detail that seemed out of place--in all actuality, a big detail, but nonetheless. On a side note, when Adrea is going to be left in her Parisian class by herself for the first time (page 108) and she regresses to gripping her hands--that detail was heart-breaking and beautifully written (inconsistencies about language development aside).

Another detail that I discussed with my step mom: On page 58 the narrator says, "There isn't a sign for 'drowning,'" which I asked about and my step mom said, "Sure there is," and she performed a sign that clearly looked to me like somebody drowning. She then did point out her typical ASL-related caveat--sometimes signs are regional and just because in the Midwest there is a commonly-accepted sign for a word, doesn't mean that's true in the East. I'll say this: ASL has to be a very difficult language to learn. I'll also say this: My step mom concurred that there is not a word for "suicide," as the narrator points out on page 160, you tell how the person killed themselves (shot themselves, took pills, etc.), so that detail was consistent. All that to say that sign language is a complex and variegated language that probably shouldn't be overly-scrutinized (I didn't really lower the literary rating for this book because of these language-related questions).

I did lower the grade because of the ending. Now, I'll be honest, I try to review books critically, not personally, so even if an ending isn't what I wanted or expected, it can still be good. And this ending was good, but it definitely could have been better. The first reason I think it could have been better was from an editing standpoint: On page 191 the author writes a beautiful line, "For this moment all things were well placed," and then she continues on for another seven paragraphs. The actual ending line of the book is, "I would clap [my hands:] together so fast that they sang, and that they made a new shape, that they threw sparks." The last line, as the way it's written, doesn't have the finality of the "... well placed," line. I felt the book should have ended with the realization of the placement of things--not with the swimming and on and on. All this would have required is moving the paragraph with the "... well placed" line to the end of the book. This would have made a monumental difference.

But here is what, in my opinion, would have moved the ending to the category of phenomenal: All throughout the book we've been looking at how the two events--the childhood death and the adoption--were correlated and I think this should have been shown in the ending. I think that the ending should have been some kind of epilogue or post script about Anna coming home, with everything "well placed" to manifest that in her external relationships. In her relationship with Adrea at least (but there's also a dad and a boyfriend and friends where this could have been shown). One additional scene of closure for the other half of the book--the entire storyline of mother/daughter bonding--would have moved this book into realm of awesomeness. It might have made my top ten of books with that additional piece.

Don't get me wrong, it's still good, probably top 50 books. But just a little lacking in the very final scene, in the place where I got my last taste.

Recommendation Lovers of literary fiction (think Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler) will love this in-depth look at family dynamics.
Profile Image for Donna.
10 reviews
January 18, 2017
Some of the most poignant - to the heart - writing ever. I highlighted a lot. Highly recommend this book!
October 16, 2017
LOVED THE BOOK, however I felt cheated at the ending of it. I don’t want to post any spoilers, but I felt there were something’s we still needed to know before it ended.
March 2, 2010
Review of Sign for Drowning

I wanted to give this book a ‘1’. Whereas the subject matter of losing a loved one in a tragic accident, adoption, growing up deaf, raising a deaf child, society’s historical efforts in educating and socializing deaf children had a lot of potential to hold my attention, I consistently felt let down by the narration. It was flat and absolutely void of any emotion beyond fear and regret. The story is a sad one, but sad stories usually exist to show even the faintest glimmers of salvation.

Many of us know that happiness, although a natural emotion, isn’t a human right. The ACLU isn’t out there defending your right to be happy, because they would be defending you against yourself. You aren’t granted the right to feel happiness at any time in life. You just are happy or you aren’t as you move day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. In other words, there are times when one has to work to achieve happiness.

Anyone who has faced any kind of horrific tragedy—the death of a loved one, a seemingly inescapable addiction, an irreparable relationship, abuse inflicted on one as a child or adult—knows what it feels like to work very, very hard for happiness and not let the darker emotions that weigh heavily on one’s every waking second take over for good. It is hard work, and I’m not even sure at this point in my life if I’m one to talk. Life has served me minor annoyances and certainly heartbreaking moments, but I don’t believe I’ve dealt at this point with true tragedy.

But I have know others that have overcome their darkest moments, those times in life that pushed them to find anything else that had a glimpse of good in it in order to not only get their hope back but also be of service and inspiration to those around them. To say I admire these people is an understatement. And even in fiction, the stories with characters that work to overcome the darkest periods of their lives by channeling the negative energy that comes from a tragedy into something productive and fertile are the stories I remember and appreciate.

I did give this book a ‘2’ because it obviously got a reaction out of me, and so I have to recognize that it caused me to think and reflect. The mother in this story is a lost cause, and I knew this by the middle of the book. She proves this toward the end in an action I can’t say I was expecting, but all in all, fit the rhythm of this story. I felt that this was a woman who thought happiness was hers to have day in and day out, and the death of her daughter as a young toddler was a particularly cruel knock against her that she chose to allow bury her. Her demise was truly a hopeless situation that left me feeling both disgusted at her selfish actions and determined in my own life to never take happiness for granted.
Profile Image for Sara.
62 reviews
August 5, 2009
This was not what I was expecting, but that's perfectly all right. There were things I liked about it, and things I didn't like. I loved the story of Anna & Adrea - how they found each other, built their lives together, and what they learned from each other. It was an excellent aspect of the story.
I liked their time in France and how Adrea really came into her own while there. I loved that she chose to learn how to speak a few words, only because I understand the joy that comes when a little voice calls me "Mommy." I also liked that it was her choice whether to vocalize, and for the most part she chose not to.
I didn't like how much Anna's parents featured in the book, considering how absent she always felt them to be. If they're so absent, why are we constantly reading something about them? I grew up with an emotionally absent father; I know how it is to want and need something that just isn't there. My father started distancing himself from my sister & me when I was just 5 years old. He was physically present, but his heart was elsewhere. Consequently, he is no longer a big part in my life. I go days or weeks without giving him more than a passing thought, and it's nothing for months to go by without us communicating. So why is Anna constantly reaching towards the people who have pushed her away for more than 20 years? She has found a family with her friends and her daughter - her parents should be almost an afterthought.
I was not a fan of the ending at all. It felt incomplete. Anna seemed to be moving in the direction of treating Adrea just like her own mother had treated her. After all of the work they had done to become a family, it almost felt like Anna was preparing to give Adrea away. Anna may have gotten her closure about Megan's death, but I did not feel closure to this story.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
127 reviews48 followers
February 7, 2010
This is a wonderful story of loss and love centered around Anna and her adopted child, Adrea, who is deaf. Anna witnessed the accidental drowning of her 5 year old sister, Megan, when she was just 8 years old. Although her family remained intact, Anna and her parents have never fully recovered from the loss. After the drowning, Anna and her parents begin to drift apart, each grieving, but splintered as a family. In order to try to communicate with Megan, Anna begins studying American Sign Language. She grows into an adult and becomes a teacher for hearing-impaired children.

The story is told from Anna’s POV as an adult and her path to healing through the adoption of Adrea, a child who is deaf. The author intersperses snippets of the past to give us a better sense of Anna and who she is in the present and how she came to be where she is. We also learn how Adrea came into her life. There are many beautiful moments in the story between Adrea and Anna that will bring tears to your eyes. The author is able to capture the raw emotions of Anna as she tries to understand and come to terms with the loss of her sister through the adoption and mothering of Adrea.

This is a beautifully written story and a quick read at only 193 pages, but it’s very raw and emotional. I recommend it highly.

Jennifer
http://www.crazy-for-books.com
Profile Image for Heather.
81 reviews2 followers
January 20, 2010
I was very excited when I was sent a copy of this book to read and review and it did not disappoint. This is the story of Anna, who at the age of eight, on what was deemed to be an ordinary family beach vacation, witnesses her younger sister's drowning in the ocean. The guilt that plagues Anna after this tragedy is central to this story line. Her powerless struggle continues as her parents are lost to her as well, consumed in their own personal grief. Anna finds solace as she learns sign language as a means of communicating with her dead sister.

Many fascinating characters enter this story, providing the novel with dimension. A couple of twists spice the story up. Anna's plunge into motherhood by adopting Adrea shows compassion and bravery, while providing a bit of education into technological advances succoring the hearing impaired. Throughout the heart of this novel remains Anna's quest to trust herself again, regain power over her own life and allow herself permission to love.

The characters were inspirational but, for unexplainable reasons, I had difficulty connecting with them and never felt completely immersed within the book. Yet the writing has a quiet beauty to it. It's as if reading someone's personal thoughts, allowing the raw emotions to ring authentic.
Profile Image for Jody.
81 reviews8 followers
July 8, 2009
This was the first book that I won from Goodreads. I really wanted to like it, not just because it was free, but also because I wanted to support a first time author.

The prologue blew me away. The tone, the style, and the description of her sister's death (I'm not giving anything away; the book's description states that the protagonist's sister dies) grips the reader. The protagonist cannot look away, and we, the reader, cannot look away either. It's powerful and beautiful writing.

Then, the story goes inward, a quiet meditation of family and grief. The style is different from the prologue and the protagonist's meditative journey could not hold my interest. I read through it, but it took time and work. After finishing it, I was not surprised by the ending, let alone the journey. I knew what Anna wanted, knew how she was going to get there, and could only shrug when she got what I knew she wanted all along. Usually prologues are considered weak or a form of cheating, but in this book, those few pages were the best part.
Profile Image for Christine.
41 reviews
July 22, 2008
The book is about a woman (Anna) still dealing with the drowning death of her sister when she was a child. As a child, Anna learned sign language with the belief she could communicate with her dead sister. The story then shifts to her adult life where her involvement in the Deaf community continuous reminds her of her sister and forces her to come to terms with her death.

Despite the heavy sounding nature of the story line, I thought the book was a fairly light read. While we were lead to believe that Anna struggled with the death of her sister, both in childhood and adulthood, I never felt the grief or struggle through the writing. The use of sign language to communicate with her sister was barely mentioned in the book even though it felt like it should be a more central story line. Overall I just felt like the book brushed over any type of deep emotion, though it was still an enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Wendy.
445 reviews32 followers
July 6, 2009
This book centered around the fallout to a family from the drowning of a child and the road to recovery for her sister, found through another child. Anna watched her younger sister Meghan, 5, drown in the waters around Cape Cod when she was 8. From this point on, her family is destroyed even though they remain together. Anna always believes that she could have saved her sister and begins to study American Sign Language as a way to communicate with her sister. As an adult, she teaches deaf students and comes across Adrea, a very special 5-year-old deaf girl. Anna decides that she wants to adopt her and the story then centers on her making a family with Adrea. Through Adrea, Anna realizes that she could not have saved her sister and is able to make peace with the drowning of her sister and her mother's subsequent suicide. A very good book that examines closely just how the unanticipated loss of a loved one can send emotional earthquakes through a family.
Profile Image for Micky.
54 reviews1 follower
July 18, 2009
** spoiler alert ** I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this short novel in which we follow the journey of a young woman from her tragic witnessing of her little sister's drowning and the collapse of her family around this horrible accident to eventual healing through the experience of taking a little deaf girl into her empty life. Speaking in first person, Anna relates that she learned sign language at the age of eight, telling us "I talked with my hands to my sister who wasn't deaf but couldn't hear." The novelists writes in beautiful, spare prose, and the story spoke to my heart. Anyone who has had to carry the memory of a tragic childhood memory will connect immediately with the world of Anna, and even those who had an ordinary childhood will find this an excellent story, filled with both sadness and great joy. I recommend it highly.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Marisa.
406 reviews13 followers
July 5, 2009
This is the story of Anna. Anna saw her 5 year old sister drown when she was 8. She thinks that by using sign language she can speak to her dead sister. Now fast forward 20 some odd years. Anna is working at the Hearing Center where she meets Adrea. She ends up adopting Adrea. But she also thinks Adrea may only be a replacement for her dead sister. This is the story of how Anna and Adrea grow as a family and also of how Anna learns to let go of the past and to stop blaming herself.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I thought that it was well written and the characters were real and believable in how they handled the situations in their life. There were characters I wouldn't have minded know a little more about (Benson and Martin) but that is more of a curiosity thing.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
108 reviews4 followers
November 17, 2009
Six years ago, I wasn't aware that there was such a thing as a deaf community. Our son fell in love with a deaf man and they have been in a committed relationship ever since.

So it was very interesting to me to read this book. I found the deaf community and deaf culture depicted in the book to be pretty true to what I know of it. I can't wait to have my son and his partner to read it and find out what they think.

I liked the characters of Anna and Adrea and their attempts at coping with grief old and new were well written. This is a fast read and although the topic sounds sad the book is touching and moving. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a great story and characters that will move you. If you have any ties to anyone deaf, this is a must read.
Profile Image for Cait S.
897 reviews71 followers
August 4, 2015
I really, really wanted to like this book. And it started out really promising! I have a soft spot for adoptive mother stories, being adopted myself, and I was really interested in the dynamic between Anna and Adrea. Unfortunately, after about 20% of the book...that stops being the point. It felt very much like the author just had too much they wanted to say. So instead of writing a longer book and spreading out their message with an actual plotline and character development, they just condensed it down to 200 pages and skipped any plot whatsoever.

The entire book is introspection and memory re-hashing. There is very, very little on screen forward movement.

There's no doubt the author can write. But for me, here, they just didn't tell a story.
Profile Image for Leslie.
14 reviews1 follower
August 24, 2009
The Sign for Drowning is a hard book to catagorize. It describes a family's response to the accidental death of the youngest child, but the overall tone is one of hope. Grief takes many different forms in this novel, some of them redeeming. I loved the language and was not surprised to discover that the author is also a poet.

Anna is a teacher of deaf children, estranged from her grief-stricken mother, when she grows to love one of her students and adopts her. This opens the floodgates of her family's grief about the loss of Anna's younger sister Megan many years before. The story is beautifully told and I will be awaiting other work by this author.
Profile Image for Leslie.
14 reviews1 follower
September 3, 2009
The Sign for Drowning is a hard book to catagorize. It describes a family's response to the accidental death of the youngest child, but the overall tone is one of hope. Grief takes many different forms in this novel, some of them redeeming. I loved the language and was not surprised to discover that the author is also a poet.

Anna is a teacher of deaf children, estranged from her grief-stricken mother, when she grows to love one of her students and adopts her. This opens the floodgates of her family's grief about the loss of Anna's younger sister Megan many years before. The story is beautifully told and I will be awaiting other work by this author.
Profile Image for Beth Anne.
877 reviews19 followers
July 13, 2009
another win on goodreads giveaways! and another great read.

this was a very touching story about a woman who lost her sister as a child...and once she becomes an adult, adopts a deaf child. the story flashes back and forth...and truly delves into the relationship breakdown between the narrator and her parents after her sister's death...as well as the development of the relationship between she and her adopted daugher.

it's a great story told through a fantastic new voice in american literature.
Profile Image for Lisa.
31 reviews3 followers
August 3, 2009
I cannot imagine what it would feel like to lose someone in my immediate family. I pray I never have to. This book made me contemplate the different coping mechanisms people have and sometimes the lack thereof. I could feel the pain and understand Anna. I know death can take people over, but just couldn't get behind the idea of still not being able to cope with a death well over 20 years ago and that it could still have such an impact. Again, I have never had it happen to me so maybe I'm just not getting the entire point.
Profile Image for The Sassy Bookworm.
3,261 reviews2,268 followers
August 19, 2009
This is Rachel Stolzman's debut novel and I can tell you right now that it surely will not be her last! I curled up on the sofa yesterday and read this wonderful book from cover to cover. The prologue sets the stage and has to be one of the best, most poignant prologues I have read in awhile. The story of Anna and Adrea is just so wonderfully done, the writing so heartfelt, almost poetic in style. The whole novel is just such a great testament to those who have loved and lost and loved again. I can't wait to see what the future holds for this author!
70 reviews1 follower
March 13, 2012
This story addressed two separate issues - the childhood death of a sibling and the adoption of a deaf child by a hearing parent, with communication and sign language a common theme between the two. As a Teacher of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing, my primary interest was in the theme related to deafness, and I felt Rachel Stolzman did a fine job portraying those aspects related to deafness. In fact, our team of D/HH teachers has selected this as the next book for our book club, as there are many points of discussion.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
464 reviews15 followers
August 10, 2009
I was selected to get a free copy of this book from First Reads!
I have just finished reading it. I thought it was well written. I was a little concerned with some of the subject matter that it would be depressing and mired in sadness. I am happy to say that in the end, the heroine found her way through the sadness into the continuation of life. I am very glad for both her and her adopted daughter. It was a "goodread"!
Profile Image for Sarah .
20 reviews
November 13, 2009
What I read was so personal and so convincing I felt like I was reading a memoir rather than a work of fiction.

It is an interesting and unique story dealing with the loss of a child and the gaining of another-told in a way that I haven't encountered before.

Although the novel is hopeful, the tragic portions of the book were so real that it was a slightly depressing read.

Amazingly well written, but be foreward it can be quite sad!
184 reviews
July 5, 2009
I really enjoyed this book. It was sad and poignant, yet there were many sweet and endearing moments as well. I liked how Anna's growing bond with her adopted daughter Adrea allowed her to come to grips with her feelings about her sister Megan's drowning and her other relationships, especially with her parents. Once I started reading, I finished the book in less than 24 hours and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Amanda.
64 reviews51 followers
July 19, 2009
Stolzman has a sort of dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness style that I enjoyed getting to know. She hops through the realms of memory, regret, dreams, and fears at a quick pace, which was like skimming over water. But I did find her story to be a lovely, albeit sad, summer novel. Since death and loss have recently entered my life, this book nudged me to examine that fragile state of longing and grief. In a way, it has even helped me.
Profile Image for Brenda.
603 reviews
April 5, 2010
This is a first novel for this author and I think she hit it out of the park! She wrote a very interesting and some times sad story about the emotional wreckage of a family tragedy, and her main characters adoption of a deaf child. Her sister had died at an early age, don't want to say more and spoil the story. This book gives you a very honest look at the lives of those who can not hear and the ways in which they can learn and the different ways they can learn to speak/communicate.
Profile Image for Tawnia.
29 reviews
February 10, 2009
An interesting story about a woman who as a girl helplessly watched her sister drown. She grew up in a family who never got over the loss and learned sign language as a way to communicate with her dead sister. Now as an adult, she adopts a deaf child and has to come to terms with her past. I'm not really sure if she comes to terms with her past which was a little disappointing.
Profile Image for Maureen.
31 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2009
This book dealt with many sensitive subjects that can arise in a family dealing was a loss of one of their own. Ms. Stolzman did a remarkable job telling this story – in some instances it almost seemed like poetry to me.

I really enjoyed this debut novel and will look forward to reading Ms. Stolzman’s future novels. Beautifully written!
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