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  • Writer's pictureNakeisha Campbell

Book Review: Learning Not to Drown by Anna Shinoda

Meet Clare Tovin. She’s an ambitious, smart seventeen-year-old with great friends and a bright future ahead of her. However, as the younger sister of a convicted felon who has been in and out of jail, it’s extremely hard to lead a normal life and maintain her good reputation. It doesn’t help that her mother is extremely overprotective and that her second brother, Peter, is annoyingly rebellious.

But when Luke is let out of prison yet again, he promises that things will change this time. His mother readily welcomes him back home with open arms, no questions asked. But after just a few days, Luke begins to slip up, and Clare is forced to see for herself just how dangerous her big brother is. As she continues to learn the whole truth behind Luke’s previous arrests, she must figure out a way to cope with these skeletons and let go of Luke, for good.

Although a dark and very emotional read,Learning Not To Drownwas by far the one of most compelling novels I’ve ever read. The rawness of Clare’s experiences throughout the novel, along with the relatable characters and Shinoda’s beautiful writing kept me engrossed from cover to cover. It was extremely hard to not identify with Clare, considering the fact that she had to deal with an overbearing mother and the stress of keeping her family’s secrets hidden. As she went through each phase of trying to cope with the truth about Luke, it was like I could see her emotional growth. Rather than blotting out the bitter memories of a loving big brother, Clare had the courage to dig deeper, to open up her eyes and accept the fact that things are not always what they seem.

Aside from Clare, the characters that really stood out to me were Clare’s mom and her brother, Luke. I had a negative impression of Clare’s mother from the start, and even when I finished, I still didn’t like her. However, her obsessive need for order and control, as well as her unconditional love for Luke made me think of how her own childhood experiences made her this way. Although she does a great job of keeping her own skeletons locked away, it slowly eats away at her. Taking away her ability to protect her own family, to be a good mother to her children, and to accept what she cannot change. A small clue was given regarding her own father’s past, and it was enough for me to piece together why she gets so irrational whenever it comes to her precious Luke. But even so, I couldn’t find it in myself to feel any sympathy for her—especially after Clare finally confronted her about the repercussions of her awful actions and decisions.

As for Luke, I immediately took a liking to him (it was hard not to, considering how happy Clare’s earliest memories of him were). But as I learned more about who he was outside of Clare’s little bubble, I grew even more fascinated with his character. How could such a sweet big brother like Luke also be capable of doing the unthinkable? It was like he had this on and off switch, and whenever he wasn’t around his family (or I should say Clare, specifically), that switch was turned off. It was as if I were reading about two completely different people, and at one point I even considered the possibility of Luke having dissociative identity disorder.

Much like Clare, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Luke had such a dark side. But what was even more disturbing was the fact that Luke didn’t evencareto change. Once he’s behind bars, he was vulnerable and in pain, and so he made empty promises to his baby sister. But once he was released, history continued to repeat itself. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would’ve turned out differently if it weren’t for that ‘friend’ Dan or the company that he usually kept. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would’ve changed his ways if his mother treated him like the wayward son who needed discipline rather than the helpless child who needed unconditional love.

Peter was the one character that I absolutely hated at first, but eventually warmed up to. Although not one of my favorites, I still loved his growth towards the end. Only after he opened up to Clare about Luke did I realize why he was always so brutal and harsh with her. It was also a huge relief to see that he really cares for Clare and that has a softer side. But regarding Clare’s father, the man was a puppet on strings attached to his wife’s finger tips. Throughout the entire novel, not once did he disagree with his wife, so it actually felt as if Clare’s mom was the man of the house. Though his stories about work were slightly amusing at times and he did add a bit of humor, he was my least favorite character in the book. He was a pushover. He did not act like he had a mind of his own, because his wife did all of the thinking for him. He never dared to challenge his wife, because of course, she “always knows what’s best.” And despite all the pain that he saw Luke cause his family, he still went along with his wife’s desperate attempts to get him back home. (What father would risk his safety, as well as the safety of his entire family, to appease his (irrational) wife?)

In addition to creating solid, complex characters, I’ve got to commend Shinoda on the novel’s structure and her smooth transitions between the past and the present. Each flashback was like a behind the scenes look at the life of Clare Tovin. A few of them did trigger more questions, but the vast majority of them succeeded at clarifying Clare’s current thoughts, decisions and actions. I also loved that Shinoda treated Clare’s big family secret as an actual skeleton (almost like another character), clanking around and lingering in places where it wasn’t welcome. But in creating that symbol, she communicated such a powerful message: That skeletons will always be a part of who we are, and how we treat those skeletons will determine our ability to move on and live a happy life.

All in all, I could sing praises about this novel for eternity. The writing is just beautiful (although I did notice a few minor errors that slipped through revision), and with each passing chapter I just fell in love with the book even more. Shinoda did a phenomenal job of tackling a lot of important issues that most readers can relate to, which include addiction, depression, loneliness, family conflict and the pressure of keeping family secrets.

If you’re up for a moving, gripping story about one girl’s struggle to find peace, closure and happiness, then you must read this book.

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