Reviewed by Ambrea
Cassie O’Malley has spent her life treading water, trying to appease the mother she both loved and hated, fighting to find herself beneath a lifetime of psychological trauma that left her vulnerable—and trapped in a mental institution for almost three years. At eighteen, Cassie is finally ready to return to the world and the life she left behind, even if it means relying on the twisted generosity of her mother.
As Cassie tries to adapt to her new life at school, she struggles to forge meaningful relationships, make new friends, and trust her peers—or her memory. After a lifetime of abuse, Cassie isn’t sure she knows how to swim on her own in a world full of depths and dangers and, as she comes to terms with her tumultuous past, she must learn to weather the storm or succumb to the waves that would pull her under if she lets them.
I loved reading The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. I know, I love a lot of books (hence my enormous reading list); however, The First Time She Drowned has quickly taken its place beside such young adult favorites as The Fault in Our Stars, I’ll Give You the Sun, and The Book Thief. It has many of the same tragic, but beautiful qualities that made me love these books more than the usual novels I read. I ugly cried with this book, and I do not very often ugly cry with my books.
The First Time She Drowned is a very special novel. This book hurt my heart—I mean, absolutely crushed it—and then it made me cry for all the small, beautiful things (a best friend with a heart of gold, small kindnesses from classmates, a counselor who actually cared) that made Cassie’s unbearable life more manageable and, ultimately, helped her heal. My heart was broken by all the unbelievable cruelty and grief she endured, only to be broken again when she finally begins to piece her life together.
Additionally, Cassie makes a wonderful narrator. Her descriptions are beautiful, and her voice is unique and strangely compelling. She tells her story with such emotion, giving it a depth that rivals the very ocean she loves. Personally, I loved her words. I loved the way she spoke, the way she related her history and made it a sensory experience.
As a reader, I enjoyed those little details that gave an added emphasis to what she felt, tastes and sounds and tactile sensations that made her experiences undeniably real. It’s fascinating to see her story unfold, to see her life come together in bits and pieces as she uncovers dark secrets from her family and makes new friends, finds new ways to heal herself and her relationships, and I quickly became entranced by her narrative.
However, I sometimes found Cassie’s narrative difficult to read. It’s staggering the amount of abuse she endures. Great-aunt Dora was terrible, of course. I despised her, because I could tell her place in the story would lead to very bad things. (I was right, which didn’t make me feel any better. It puts me in the mind of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, tragic and horrifying all at once.) But I was most shocked by her mother.
At first, Cassie deals with all these little slights—small, tiny things, like her preference for Cassie’s older brother or her demeaning comments meant to make Cassie feel bad about herself—and then it turns into outright abuse. Her mother is malicious and, if things don’t go her way, she’s not above manipulating the situation to turn things in her favor. I mean, she even goes so far as to confine Cassie to a mental institution when she realized she could no longer control her daughter.
It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, and I hated to see it.
Cassie’s narrative also frequently bounces through time. It’s easy enough to distinguish between the past and the present: one, Cassie frequently notes when she’s reaching into her memories; two, she speaks in the past tense when she’s referring to the past, but she speaks in the present tense when she’s living in the moment. There’s a definitive line between her past and present, but I was sometimes surprised (or, maybe more accurately, alarmed) by her history as the boundary between the two became very fluid.
Basically, readers are caught in the middle of her story. She’s still living her life, struggling to survive and heal from the various hurts she endured from her mother (and, by proxy, her easily manipulated father), but she’s also reliving her past. I started in the middle of her story and worked my way out, seeing her past and glimpsing her future as she fights for the present. It can sometimes be complicated, but I can’t say I didn’t expect it in a novel as emotionally complex as The First Time She Drowned.
Overall, I absolutely loved reading The First Time She Drowned. It’s heart-breaking, but it’s so beautifully compelling. I can’t completely describe how much I enjoyed this novel. It hit me on an emotional level and it made me care about Cassie, made me care about what was happening in her life and gave me hope that everything would eventually be okay—and, of course, it made me ugly cry.
But I think that’s always the mark of a good book: it makes you care.