Books
3:53 pm
Thu September 4, 2008

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

Many years ago, when I was writing a movie review column, an older woman came up to me at a cocktail party and said, "Dr. Noble, my husband and I read your reviews faithfully. We find them very useful. If you like a movie, we don't go." Perhaps this is the case here. I don't hold with ghosts and Ouija boards, but if my description of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming sounds good, by all means, buy it and take it to the beach.

There seems to be yet another trend in popular fiction. For the past few years no novel or memoir was deemed complete unless there was a banquet scene like Babette's Feast and/or actual recipes at the end of each chapter. These were extra, like the leather punch on a Swiss Army knife: you figured you were never actually going to punch much leather, but wow, your knife had all those blades. Now, however, cadavers are being substituted for recipes. Murder mysteries sell, it is reasoned, so let's make all novels into murder mysteries.

Joshilyn Jackson had a hit with her first novel, Gods in Alabama (2005), in which the cadaver belonged to a high school quarterback of dubious character. Jackson's second novel, in 2006, was more fully accomplished. It is the sophisticated story of a deaf family in Between, Georgia.

In this present novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Jackson continues to show that she can tell a story.

Maybe there is too much story.

Laurel Hawthorne is a young mother, 32, with a teenage daughter, Shelby. In the middle of the night, Laurel is visited by the ghost of her daughter's friend Molly, who guides Laurel to the bedroom window of their semi-McMansion, from where Laurel can see the actual corporeal body of Molly, dead, drowned, in Laurel's backyard swimming pool. It's the middle of the night. What was Molly doing in Laurel's yard at 2 a.m.? Was she alone? Was her drowning an accident? If not, who killed her?

Ghosts don't upset Laurel much. She has been visited many times by the ghost of her Uncle Marty, who was shot to death, perhaps by accident, by Laurel's dad or maybe by Laurel's sister, Thalia. In any case, no one minds very much because Uncle Marty was a child molester who liked to expose himself to young girls. It didn't seem to occur to these characters that Marty might be banished from family gatherings, or even accused and arrested. No, they shoot him dead.

Laurel, Thalia, and Laurel's husband, David, an earnest computer geek who writes software for video games, set out to discover who might have killed Molly. Most of the rocks they turn over in Victorianna have slimy creatures under them. Along the way we learn, as a kind of sidelight, who killed Uncle Marty. There is also a kind of mystery subplot in which Thalia sets out to prove that David is cheating on Laurel, if not in the flesh, then in cyberspace. This goes nowhere.

The prime suspect in Molly's death, as far as Laurel is concerned, is a neighborhood bachelor, Stan. Stan also lives in Victorianna, the posh gated community, but rather than going to work each day, Stan jogs around the streets of the development wearing only skimpy running shorts. All towns have some of these men, running bare-chested in the middle of the day in public, in their little shorts. They are exhibitionists, sure, but not necessarily perverts.

This amateur sleuthing reminded me of a Nancy Drew mystery, but the incredible amount of secret drinking and bad behavior reminded me more of Desperate Housewives?this novel is perfectly constructed to be made into a movie for Lifetime. The detectives of this Hysteria Lane are aided by a Ouija board when the planchette spells out "She saw." Who saw, and what?

Maybe Shelby saw, or maybe it was Bet, the visiting country cousin from the Alabama town of DeLop, a cluster of rusting mobile homes, pit bulls, and meth labs arrayed around an abandoned strip mine.

Many years ago, when I was writing a movie review column, an older woman came up to me at a cocktail party and said, "Dr. Noble, my husband and I read your reviews faithfully. We find them very useful. If you like a movie, we don't go." Perhaps this is the case here. I don't hold with ghosts and Ouija boards, but if my description of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming sounds good, by all means, buy it and take it to the beach.

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