Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Learning to Swim Introduces a New Favorite Female Protagonist: Meet Troy Chance

Most good books have an excellent first line. In my middle school language arts classes, we call them "grabbers," although my students are writing paragraphs and essays rather than novels. Sara J. Henry's debut novel Learning to Swim begins with one of those grabbers, but what impressed me most was her follow through. Her last line is every bit as memorable as her first. See?

First lines: "If I'd blinked, I would have missed it. But I didn't, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry."

Last lines: "A mile or two away I stopped the car and cried, great gasping sobs, until my breathing evened out and I could drive. Tears trailed down my cheeks until I reached Cornwall and started across the bridge into New York. Sometimes you know you've made the right decision, simply because of how hard it is."
Doesn't that make you want to find out what's in the middle? Trust me, you do. This first novel reads like an experienced writer penned it. It has everything important to me, everything that makes a good book just that: good. Interesting plot? Check. Well-developed characters? Check. Detailed setting? Check.

To most southerners like myself, Canada is a far-away, northern vastness about which little is known. Protagonist Troy Chance left the confines of her native Nashville and moved as close to Canada as possible while still living within the United States. In her eyes, the only pathway to freedom was escaping her Vanderbilt-professor father and the southern belles in her family. Far from home, she still can't get away from that old southern hospitality. Troy lives in a rambling old rent house in Lake Placid, New York, but rather than live alone, she takes in boarders. In a house full of raucous, athletic males, she is the only female -- the bond that holds them all together. Surviving on freelance writing assignments, she and her mixed-breed dog Tiger spend their days enjoying the lakes and mountains that comprise that area of the country.

While riding on the ferry from New York to Burlington, Vermont, one afternoon, Troy sees something fall from a passing ferry (see above, first lines). She dives into the frigid Lake Champlain waters, and what she discovers effectively changes her life forever. Although Troy's story is full of mystery and suspense, Learning to Swim is far from your typical straight-to-paperback thriller sold in airport newsstands or in the checkout aisle at your local drug store. Rather, it's a hybrid I call the literary mystery: part smart, well-written fiction/ part mystery novel. The literary mystery is quite possibly my favorite genre, and Learning to Swim is one of the best examples I've read in a long time.

One reason for this is the setting, which I mentioned above: picturesque New England and Canada. Henry writes with knowledge about a place she understands first-hand, having lived in Lake Placid and now Vermont herself. I've never visited that part of the U.S., but I was able to imagine it perfectly. It is a tourist spot Henry describes from the locals' point-of-view, a town teeming with visitors yet somehow solitary. Henry also does an excellent job with the Canadian setting.

I hesitate to say too much about the novel's plot, as I feel it's best to read it for yourself. To allow all the twists and turns to unfold as they will. The story is an excellent one, but main character Troy Chance is the primary reason Learning to Swim is such a stand-out novel. Henry has said that Troy is her, or she is Troy, when she is writing. Troy and Henry do share several things in common: both are journalists, both are from Tennessee but now live in New England, both have (or had, in Henry's case) a dog named Tiger. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that there are other characteristics the two share. The link between author and character results in an incredibly genuine protagonist -- Troy comes across as someone you might know. Henry shared more details about Troy in an interview yesterday at 7 Criminal Minds, in which she details what "a night out" might look like for Troy.

For more on Sara J. Henry and Learning to Swim, head back over on Thursday when she joins me for an interview. Until then, explore her blog Sara in Vermont, follow her on Twitter, or better yet -- read the first chapter of Learning to Swim for yourself.

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