Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review: Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim

Cover Image of Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim


Review:  Learning to Swim.  Sara J. Henry.  Crown Publishers, New York.  2011.  Hardback, $24.  978-0-307-71838-9.

“If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.”  From a Lake Champlain ferry Troy sees “a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.”  She doesn’t think, doesn’t hesitate.  She jumps in to rescue this boy.  She lives in Lake Placid, New York, was on her way to see her boyfriend, Thomas, in Burlington, Vermont.  She finds the boy, swims back to the surface, having held her breath longer than she thought possible.  Then she blows her breath into him.  “The boy coughed, spewed forth a gush of water, then opened his eyes.  ‘Yes,’ I whispered. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ and I think I shook him a little.  I might have cried if I hadn’t learned a long time ago you can’t cry and swim at the same time...
“I staggered as we came out of the water, him clinging to my side like a baby orangutan, and sat down on the first big rock I came to. .. ‘Merci,’ he whispered...
“I felt a rush of emotion so strong it jolted me.”
Afraid to take him to the police for fear they’d “hand him off to a stranger,” she takes him home to her rental house, which she shares with several young men.  Her dog, Tiger, a golden retriever-German shepherd mix, adopts Paul, who speaks only French and doesn’t tell her much at first about what he has been through.  She calls her friend Baker who has three small sons and can help with clothes and advice.  She begins to think of him as hers: “I’d found him. I’d saved him.”
Learning to Swim is one of the few books I’ve read that I simply couldn’t stop reading.  I had no choice.  I had to know what happened to this sudden, passionate, impromptu mother of a small six-year-old boy, whom someone had tried to drown.  It hit me below the belt.  The feelings were like that tug when you are a mother and your child is threatened.  Pure instinct.  Your desire to read is like what Troy did, diving before she knew she would, to save a boy thrown from a passing ferry.
For me good mysteries assemble believable characters with depth, real human passions, and conflict; a plot that pulls me along, curious, puzzled; a time and place that is revealed in ways I couldn’t get if I went there and looked on.  I’m taken inside a fictional world and put at my ease.  I forget I’m not part of it.  I care about the sleuth or point of view character.  I want to know what happens.  All these things are true of this book, but few books of any kind have the magnetic pull this one does, at least for me.  I had to read it.  I had to know.  I was, as we say, hooked, from the opening paragraph.
The story of the aftermath is compelling, too, well-told.  We follow each step of Troy’s search for the boy’s parents, meet people who help her, worry that she’ll encounter the criminals who throw children off ferries.  There is suspense, a clever plot, a carefully delineated emotional journey Troy takes which changes her rather casual, carefree life as a freelance journalist forever, but these things, admirable and well-done, weren’t what made me marvel and want to read whatever else Sara Henry wrote.  She has a new one in this series coming out in the fall.  You can find out more at  She deserves the First Best Novel Agatha, and is nominated.  I doubt that people who have read the book will feel they have a choice.  I don’t.


Sara J. Henry's novel Learning to Swim, which Lisa Unger describes as "a terrific debut," is the first in a series based in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where Sara lived as a freelance writer in a big house with a lot of roommates, just like her main character.  Sara studied journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville and Carleton University in Ottawa, worked as a newspaper and book editor, did stints at several magazines, and used to be a health and fitness writer (she has also been a website designer, bicycle mechanic, and soil scientist).  Sara is from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and lives on a dirt road in southern Vermont with at least one too many dogs.  Learning to Swim was an Emerging Author pick at Target, and is a finalist for the Agatha First Best Traditional Mystery Novel Award, Barry Award, and Mary Higgins Clark Award.

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