Sarah Ryburn's Reviews > Learning to Swim

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry
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's review
Jan 17, 2011

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bookshelves: first-reads
Read in February, 2011

In accordance with FTC guidelines, I'll begin with the disclosure that I won a copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads program.

Review: This short novel is an entertaining read. Murder-mystery plot with a twist reminiscent of P. D. James or Agatha Christie: suspects and the true murderer are revealed not only to have been connected to each other but also caught up in sordid subplots with twists of their own. Henry doesn't plot her story quite so well. She gives us fewer characters, only two subplots, and much less of the fascinating cat and mouse play of Christie and James. The second of the subplots makes a late entrance (not so ingeniously introduced in the final 50 pages) and reveals the murderer's true identity while simultaneously removing the obstacles that have frustrated our heroine in her would-be romance... hmm.

This is my one real critique of the novel: the ending. It reads like the end of a chapter not the conclusion of a full length novel. Our heroine repeatedly remarks that she's "not the same woman" she was at the beginning. Obviously not. She dove off the back of a ferry to save the life of small child then returns him to his father for whom she feels almost instant attraction and who remains a prime suspect in the kidnapping of his wife and son. Brilliant opening chapter on the ferry; I was hooked immediately. Pretty good plot twist, too; I wasn't annoyed or disappointed by Henry's revelation of the villain (although I had suspected all along) because the twist truly did remind me of something I might find in a P. D. James mystery. Rather thrilling.

The final chapter disappoints. I wonder if Sara J. Henry wanted to avoid a cliché girl-meets-boy-meets-boy's-father-falls-for-father-clears-him-of-murder-charges (phew!) "and they lived happily ever after" ending. Fine. I can respect that. Still, she steps squarely into another, more banal cliché with the "I don't really know who I am, I only know I've changed" anti-climax. Again, I simply say that the final sentence doesn't read at all like a conclusion but as a cliff-hanger chapter ending. Why assert with such emphasis that your heroine has changed if you can't be bothered to examine and develop the change? Why draw me in and manipulate me to care for these characters, then drop them so carelessly? Almost as coldly as a woman might tie her small son up in a sweatshirt and drop him from the back of a ferry to drown.

These seem harsh questions particularly given the fact that I actually did enjoy reading the novel: right up to the final chapter. There is more about the novel to praise than to criticize, and I tend to think that endings (good ones) are difficult to write: arguably, the most elusive part of really good writing. I suppose one might read into the jarring, disorienting effect of those last lines a subtle similarity to the visceral jolt one receives diving into cold water. Henry's character may be "learning to swim," but I can't escape the thought that this novelist has found her way to shore by the path of least resistance. Denying your character the romance some readers/critics may deplore isn't categorically the high road of true literature; sometimes, it's the short and easy road out.

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