Finally another book review!
I’ve been absolutely terrible at writing book reviews after finishing up a book; I have about 3 I still need to work on. On a more positive note BT&W is 1 year old!
New college, new dorm, new friends … Same Cassie.
Two years have passed since Cassie’s family checked her into a psychiatric ward. Her time there has been anything but helpful. She is angry and resents her doctor for believing the lies her mother told to get her locked up. Not to mention, she also feels completely abandoned by everyone in her life after having little to no visits or phone calls, for that matter, over the last two years.
Now after turning eighteen and against her doctor’s advice, Cassie has decided to check herself out of the ward to attend college. And, although college life holds the promise of a fresh start as well as the freedom she so desperately craves, Cassie soon discovers that she can’t navigate through all of the new things going on in her life without first addressing all the troublesome details about her past. Stuff that she has buried so far down, she can’t even remember herself.
Even more confusing for her, Cassie’s mom suddenly wants to come visit her and be a part of her life again. Like with anything involving her mother, Cassie knows she is opening herself up to the possibility of getting hurt. After all, the last time Cassie did something that displeased her mother, she ended up in the ward. But despite the mistrust, Cassie is determined to fix things between her and her mother, there has always been something unresolved about their relationship that she wished they could work through. Not to mention, she feels obligated to let her mom come up to see her since she is the one paying the bills for her to attend the university.
As Cassie revisits moments in her past, she discovers a lot of things not only about herself but also about her mother and why their relationship fell apart then and threatens to fall apart again now.
I really shouldn’t say this yet because there is still November and December left of this year and there are some great reads I’m really looking forward to getting around to, but I want to say that, so far, The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter is my favorite book of 2020. It is definitely the book that is closer to being more realistic while still being fiction that I’ve read in a while, which is probably why I ended up liking it so much. I tend to read a lot of YA fantasy or science-fiction so it was a nice shift into more serious and real life sort of issues.
While I love this book, one thing that stuck out to me as more like an incomplete thought rather than full on bad was Zoey’s – who is Cassies beast friend in college – character development.
For starters, we know the bare minimum about her and while the same can be said for all the other characters with the exception of the mother, with Zoey it’s a little more noticeable because she is one of the more prominent and recurring characters. Also, there are parts in the book where it almost seems like the author wants to give us more about Zoey and then it just doesn’t happen.
For example, when Cassie befriends Zoey she finds out that Zoey is a sophomore in college living in the freshmen dorm because she transferred last minute. The circumstances of her sudden transfer are not explained at all, though there is sort of an implication that this is something that will be addressed later, perhaps when the two are better friends but like I said, it is just never addressed.
This happens again when Zoey asks Cassie to meet her other friends, but before heading out to meet them they have to make a quick stop at the counselors office (counselor as in like therapist not advisor). This puts Cassie in the right place to meet the counselor she ends up going to get help from, but it raises the question of why does Zoey need to see a counselor and could it perhaps have anything to do with why she suddenly transferred? Sadly, this is not something that is explored, so as the reader you are just left to wonder what exactly was Zoey’s entire story.
For me personally it was something I dwelled on because sometimes Cassie could be so mean to Zoey and Zoey was such a kind friend. From early on, I was under the impression that Zoey was going through her own psychological problems and that perhaps this is what made her so understanding of Cassie’s behavior. I thought that maybe it would be something the two bonded over but alas, they bonded over other things and Zoey sort of becomes Cassie’s entire support system. Ultimately there is enough of Zoey in the plot, I’m just saying there could have been more.
Other than that small detail with Zoey’s character development, this book is a beautiful masterpiece that just exceeded my already high expectations.
The first thing I noticed is that Kletter has a very beautiful way of writing, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book within the fiction genre quite like this one. There is so much imagery and descriptive words. Not only is it easy to picture in my head what is happening around a character, but it also helps me understand the feelings and mood of a character within a scene.
It’s funny to me, thinking about this book because it reminds me of how the little quips on the cover of books will say something like “breathtaking” or “beautifully written.” I guess I never fully understood what that meant exactly, until I read this book. That’s how much I like it.
I think the characters that are important to the story are developed amazingly well and naturally throughout the course of the plot. Cassie’s character specifically has this duality where yes she can come across as mean and unlikable but you can also feel sympathetic towards her struggle to trust people.
Cassie is a very relatable character too. Not exactly in that everyone has a terrible relationship with their parents. But, more in the sense that everyone can to some extent see themselves in Cassie at some point or another; more specifically in those moments where she sort of lets her needs and personality take a back seat just so she can meet her mother’s expectations.
‘Do you ever feel like you’re disappearing?’ she said
She turned and searched my eyes, and for a moment I felt so understood and loved because that was exactly how I felt, how I had felt for so long that I could not remember when it started or a time when I felt solid. It seemed to me as if my brother, Mathew, was real in the way that love made the Velveteen Rabbit real, whereas only the act of being his shadow had kept me from being erased. And now I thought my mother finally saw it, saw that I too needed to be painted in, made into something visible. So I nodded yes, yes, I have felt like I was disappearing, but she had already turned away.“– Cassie page 128/ Kerry Kletter
Another thing that I really appreciated reading throughout this book was just seeing, through the character interactions, that this dynamic of emotional abuse from Cassie’s mom is not an isolated occurrence. Cassie and her mom’s relationship is a product of a cycle of abuse. In Cassie’s mother’s case, her mom was also clearly showing favoritism towards her son while really showing no love towards her daughter. It’s not an excuse for how the mom treated Cassie but it definitely shows how Cassie’s mom probably went through a similar situation but didn’t grow from it whatsoever and then went on to abuse her daughter in the same way she was as a child.
While I wouldn’t consider this book a feminist text, there are definitely some feminist ideas present. I thought that the focus at the end specifically (which I won’t say what it is because I don’t want to spoil it) is very much about female empowerment and female growth. It was a very beautiful an serene moment that I found was a perfect way to end of the novel.
I give The First Time She Drowned five stars. It is definitely a book I would recommend to practically anyone. Although, because it does deal with very adult themes, I would probably refrain from recommending it to younger readers (13 and under). Also, I wouldn’t recommend this book to those triggered by suicidal thoughts, suicide, depression, and sexual assault.
This is the first book I’ve read by Kerry Kletter. I definitely plan on reading more by her which I think the only other book she has out at the moment is East Coast Girls.
So yeah, definitely pick up this book and cry with me a little. I don’t know why but I really enjoy sad books. It had been a long time since I’d read a good sad book so I purposefully picked this book after doing some research. And let me just say, it did not disappoint.