Learning To Swim, by Sara J. Henry: a book discussion

February 20, 2016 at 4:26 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

8736390   This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion of Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry. It had been a while since I’d read this novel, and my recollection of details was somewhat hazy. Not so for the others present – they dove in head first, displaying an abundance of both insight and enthusiasm.

It was clear from the outset that the reaction to this book was overwhelmingly favorable. Learning To Swim opens with a high octane drama that grabs the reader right from the get-go. The setting, actually dual settings, both in the Lake Champlain region – and for a few scarifying moments IN Lake Champlain! –  and in Ottawa, contribute to the story’s unique flavor. But I think the elements of this novel that were most intriguing reposed in the character and personality of the main protagonist, Troy Chance.

When we first meet Troy, she is attempting to rescue a child, who, without her intervention, would surely have died. The rescue succeeds – and then the mystery takes over. Who is this boy? How did  he come to be in such a harrowing circumstance? All she has been able to glean from him is that his name is Paul, and he speaks French almost exclusively.

As Troy struggles to comprehend the situation, we get to know her better. She’s a free lance journalist, living in a house in Lake Placid, New York with several male renters. Except for a brother who’s a policeman in Florida, she’s not close to her family. She’s not especially close to her (supposed) boyfriend either. But in a very short time, she finds herself becoming deeply attached to little Paul.

Troy’s character and proclivities were a major topic of discussion. To begin with, she endeared herself to me by being named (by her father) after Agatha Troy, the society painter who is the love interest and then wife of Roderick Alleyn, the protagonist featured in Ngaio Marsh’s series of detective novels. Troy observes:

I liked the character I was named after: slim, thoughtful, graceful, a talented painter and a watcher of people.

(Interestingly, Agatha Troy was initially reluctant to enter fully into a relationship with Alleyn. It took the traumatic events of Death in a White Tie – a novel I love – to make her finally willing to commit to him.)

We mainly had a positive view of  Troy. However, Frank dissented from that view, and the reasons for that dissent were interesting. As I understood it, he felt that in the depiction of Troy, Sara J. Henry failed to make her character sufficiently womanly. At first, he averred,  he felt uncertain even as to whether she was male or female. He attributed this impression partly to her lack of strong commitment to, and feelings for, her friends and family. She seemed to him like a person floating through life, with no particular aspirations either of a professional or personal nature.

Other group members received this pronouncement with some perplexity. I think that by and large, most of us accepted Troy Chance as a woman, albeit one who is keeping the world at arm’s length. Of course, this stance is suddenly and radically altered by the entry of Paul into her life. Frances suggested that Troy, still young, was in the process of becoming – “learning to swim,” in other words. Moreover, we’re given hints that her upbringing gave cause for wanting to preserve a distance between herself and the world: “…I’ve often wondered if my mother would have liked me better if I had been a Christina or a Sharon or Jennifer.”

Frank also found a number of “plot holes,” points on which he elaborated. We agreed with him about some of these, but not all. My own feeling about the novel is that from the point of view of structure, it’s somewhat problematic.After a highly dramatic opening that  provided plenty of momentum, it sagged somewhat in the middle. (I think some of the others agreed with that assessment.) Frank, himself an author, commented that this is a common problem in crime fiction, one that sometimes requires the addition of a sub plot in order to keep things moving.

(At one point, someone asked Frank whether writers necessarily know from the outset how the plots of their novels are going to unfold. He then introduced us to the concept of “plotters and pantsers,” an expression new to me.)

Published in 2011, Learning To Swim is the first in what I assume will be a series featuring Troy Chance. It was a winner of multiple awards:

2011 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
2012 Anthony Award for Best First Novel
2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award
Finalist 2012 Barry Award for Best First Novel
Finalist 2012 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery

(With thanks to the entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me!)

Our presenter for this book discussion was Louise. We owe her thanks for making such a good choice to begin with, and then leading a fine session in which we were allowed to give full vent to our opinions – something we rarely have trouble doing!

The second novel, A Cold and Lonely Place, came out in 2013. I believe that Frances mentioned having already read it.

If you look at the author information provided on Sara J. Henry’s website, you’ll readily perceive that she has quite a bit in common with Troy Chance.

I’ve only touched on certain points in this discussion; it was actually quite wide ranging and lots of fun. Judging by the strength of Learning To Swim, Sara J. Henry has a definitely got something going here. I’d be interested in reading the next in the series.

Sara J. Henry

Sara J. Henry

[As always, comments, corrections, etc. from the Suspects – indeed, from any reader of this blog –  are most welcome.]


1 Comment

  1. Kathy D. said,

    I read this book awhile ago and I don’t remember the details. However, the writer might have deliberately kept Troy’s gender identity a bit vague. These days, gender identities among many young people are much more fluid and less rigid than they used to be. The author may have been saying that it’s more important to care about a character’s personality and actions, rather than to identify their gender strictly.
    It’s a social issue today.

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