“The Girl Who Stopped Swimming”


I happened to pick up Joshilyn Johnson’s The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and was impressed with the author’s skill. It’s a mystery about how a girl happened to be found lying face down in a suburban swimming pool, and like any good mystery, illuminates a number of other things too.
The girl is a friend of the main character’s daughter, and her death seems to be an accident, but the mother (the primary character) feels there’s something wrong, because the girl’s ghost came to her as she lay between sleeping and waking.
A lot of things turn out to be involved, and one of the main things is class. The woman is happily married to a nerdy man working with computers, but they don’t communicate a lot, except sexually. Her mother had grown up in a poor and bad area, but escaped because of the man who fell in love with her. The mother has always tried very hard to put her past behind her and not see anything that would remind her of it. The main character, Laurel, is more or less like her mother in that, while her sister, Thalia, has always rebelled against it.
Laurel is more or less the perfect suburban wife. Thalia (fittingly enough, considering her name), is an actress who lives unconventionally, and who believes that her sister’s marriage isn’t happy. Laurel also has a hard time believing Thalia’s marriage (she’s married to a gay man, and has affairs) is happy. Each is both right and wrong.
After their mother escaped from her background, she went back regularly at Christmas as a benefactor (but not as a member of that community), bringing presents to the children, among other things. Laurel wants to steal children from there, to bring them up more happily. She won’t do it literally, but she continues her mother’s tradition. So when the neighbor girl dies in the pool, there’s a distantly related girl from DeLop (the nasty place) staying with them.
Laurel’s family has some other secrets too. One is her uncle Marty, “accidentally” shot on a hunting trip. Marty was a child molester–he may never have actually molested a child, but it was pretty common knowledge that his taste ran that way. Laurel has seen his ghost too, but never since getting married and moving to the community she lives in now.
She and Thalia have had a breakup, not seeing each other for two years, but after the drowning, still feeling things aren’t right, even after the police have declared the death an accident, she decides to bring her sister to stay with them and help her find out what they are. This is a somewhat daring move, as her sister and husband don’t like each other.
We learn more as the story goes on, and it’s a story that could be profound. The one problem with it, for me, is the writer is SO skillful that the story comes off slick, with the profundity obscured.
What do we learn? Laurel’s sister is her protector, but so is her husband. Their uncle Marty had made a remark on the hunting trip indicating he was attracted to Laurel, and Thalia had shot him without thinking about it. She’d gotten away with that, and apparently didn’t lose much sleep over it. When she comes back to stay with her sister she suspects Laurel’s husband of having an affair, or getting ready to, because they both see him talking animatedly with a co-worker who’s an attractive young woman. Between that and other things, Laurel gets drunk, flips out, and destroys a lot of dishes, before sleeping it off. When she wakes up her husband is with her, and she’s determined she has to tell him about life in DeLop, which she’s kept in a separate compartment. Her husband tells her that he was animated with the young woman because she was speaking his tech language, which always excites him, but though he noticed she was pretty, he hadn’t been tempted.
He and Laurel had gotten together just as acquaintances first–he had hung around with her and her girlfriends, never really being part of the group. He tells her now that he had been there because of her, that when she was there she always lit up the room for him. They had happened into sex when he found her crying, it had been really good sex, and she had gotten pregnant, so he had quit school, married her, and started working very profitably for a tech company. She had always wondered in the back of her mind if he was there only because he’d gotten her pregnant. Now she’s reassured.
The “villain” in the drowning turns out to be the girl from DeLop, Bet, who really loves living with Laurel and her family. She visits them, but they’ve never really made a place for her, and she wants a place with them. She had seen the girl fall off the diving board, hit her head, and drown, and had done nothing. Laurel decides it’s because Bet thought the girl was her daughter, and felt that losing her would open a space Bet could fit into. She can’t afford to have the truth found out. She takes Laurel’s daughter to DeLop, deciding to kill her so no one will know. Then maybe she can have her dream.
This follows the narrative that poor people are jealous of rich people. Of course there’s some truth to that, but what conclusion one comes to depends on interpretation. Of course many people would like more money than they have, but it doesn’t always follow that people with less care that much–unless they’re being actively oppressed. Those who insist that people are poor because they’re lazy, and prefer to live on welfare (and for no other reason), are ideologues with bad consciences.
Some poor people are lazy. So are some rich people. Some poor people abuse alcohol and drugs. So do some rich people. Some poor people don’t have very good sexual behavior. Neither do some rich people. The big difference is that being rich allows you more margin for error. Being poor means financial catastrophe is all around you, and may easily engulf you, even if you make all the right choices. Those kinds of generalizations on the basis of class are foolish. The only generalizations you can make about any large group of people, I think, is that some are probably very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in the middle.
Bet is clearly a character who wants a better life, and doesn’t know how to go about getting one, being only in her early teens. She makes an unfortunate choice, possibly not even knowing any better, and eventually dies because of it. Probably few readers will identify with her. Probably not many readers with her kind of background will read this book.
Yes, there is a happy ending to the novel. Laurel and her husband move out of the suburb. Laurel is again pregnant, and sure it will be a son this time. She and her sister are spending more time in DeLop, trying to benefit people there in a better way, which isn’t entirely made clear. Her sister and husband may still not much like each other, but have reached an accomodation.
On the other hand, Bet is dead. The end of the novel suggests she’s happier that way. But her character represents the truly sad part of this book. She had fewer chances in life than the other characters, at least in the financial sense, and was too young to know what to do with what chances she did have. She made a bad choice, one she might not have made had she been older, or lived in a different part of society. The book doesn’t portray her as evil, and I don’t think she is. No more so than the other, more fortunate characters.
But she represents a large part of America that gets stigmatized for political profit. That’s the time-bomb in this novel for anyone willing to take the time to think about how politicians encourage us not to care about anyone different from us, anyone we don’t like, or anyone that scares us. Bet isn’t portrayed as evil, but we’re not encouraged to care about her either. She’s not as important (despite her disastrously bad choice) as anyone else here. Whether the writer could or should have approached this differently, I don’t know, but the ending makes the novel feel less than it could have been.


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