I was definitely surprised to find that a major traditional publisher like Little Brown was allowing me to download one of their books on Net Galley without an approval process. That certainly shows how much things are changing in the publishing industry. It looks to me like Little Brown took a risk on a first novel by a relatively unknown writer. Perhaps they thought that casting a wider net during the pre-release phase would help the book find its audience. The book is The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic who has a short story anthology and a memoir to her credit.
Most reviews that I've seen say that this is a book that focuses on the bond between the two sisters, Magdalena and Jadranka. I think that the differences between the two sisters are actually more important. Jadranka is a talented artist and an individualist. She desperately wanted to leave home for the sake of her art career. Magdalena values tradition, community and family. Because Magdalena values these things, she remains on the island off the coast of Croatia where she was born. She commits to the community as a teacher, and lives with her grandmother who gave her security and a sense of home. When Magdalena learns that Jadranka has disappeared, she never gives up on trying to find her. Would Jadranka have done the same if Magdalena had been the one to disappear?
Since Americans have been brought up to believe that separation from family is part of the process of growing up, I imagine that most American readers will find Jadranka more sympathetic and wonder what's wrong with Magdalena. I feel that Magdalena's choices are legitimate ones and that they are the right ones for her. I was also impressed by Jadranka. She is an amazingly strong woman and a survivor. Brkic's characters are very real--sometimes painfully so.
Because I have a concern with authenticity, I need to mention that there is no island called Rosmarina off the coast of Croatia. There is an island called Brac which may be the island that Rosmarina is modeled on, or it may be a composite of more than one island.
I noticed a reference to Our Lady of Sinj in The First Rule of Swimming. So I researched her, and learned that this Croatian Madonna is very important to Croatians and Croatian-Americans. She is also known as Velika Gospa which is the name given to her feast day. Read more about it at Chicago Croatian-American Church on Our Lady of Sinj.