Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Review: The Sign for Drowning

Title The Sign for Drowning
Author Rachel Stolzman
Genre Literary Fiction
Category Women's Fiction
Rating B+

Summary Anna's life appears to be dominated by two main events: the drowning of her five-year-old sister (when Anna was eight); and the adoption of Adrea, a five-year-old deaf girl in the foster care system, whom she met as part of her work as an ASL teacher at a Deaf & Hearing Center in New York City. How these two events twine together to bring wholeness to Anna is the story told in The Sign for Drowning.

First Line "My father and Carla towed the yellow inflatable boat carrying the girls into the water," (Prologue, Page 1).

Review I read this book with a smile on my face and a lump in my throat nearly the entire way through. Then, when I was done, I returned to the front of the book and immediately re-read some of my favorite passages. My favorite parts centered around the character of Adrea and how she touched those around her. The stories of when Adrea's adoption certificate comes, Adrea finding the African violet plants at the market, Adrea getting dressed up for the poetry reading, and Adrea making her first cow-related sounds in France were charming and moving to read.

Further solidifying this short novel as a sheer pleasure to read was Stolzman's prose. Her background as a poet came through in her wonderful turns of phrases. From the beginning scenes that gripped you, as Anna watched her family frantically realize that her sister was drowning, the language of this book worms its way into your heart and mind.

But lest I give you the impression that this book was perfect, let me justify my rating of a B+.

First, as I read this book of a child adopted out of foster care, my mind immediately went to the young people I work with each summer who are part of the foster care system (check out Royal Family Kids Camp for details on this organization), and I was surprised by the language development of Adrea. Most of our children are delayed in their speech and reading skills because they haven't been in a supportive, nurturing environment that will develop those skills, but Adrea actually had exceptional communication skills. Her understanding of abstract concepts exceeded what I have learned in my educational theory classes is standard for a five-year-old. I ran this discontinuity past my stepmother, who is an ASL interpreter, and she was surprised at the idea of a deaf child being in a foster home that wasn't with deaf foster parents from the age of 15 months to 5 years (as is the case with Adrea in this story). She said that in most major cities, it holds true for Indianapolis and she imagined it would be the same in NYC, that the deaf community takes great pains to work with the CPS system to make sure that all deaf children are placed into deaf foster homes. Maybe it's not that way in NYC, but it was just a little detail that seemed out of place--in all actuality, a big detail, but nonetheless. On a side note, when Adrea is going to be left in her Parisian class by herself for the first time (page 108) and she regresses to gripping her hands--that detail was heart-breaking and beautifully written (inconsistencies about language development aside).

Another detail that I discussed with my step mom: On page 58 the narrator says, "There isn't a sign for 'drowning,'" which I asked about and my step mom said, "Sure there is," and she performed a sign that clearly looked to me like somebody drowning. She then did point out her typical ASL-related caveat--sometimes signs are regional and just because in the Midwest there is a commonly-accepted sign for a word, doesn't mean that's true in the East. I'll say this: ASL has to be a very difficult language to learn. I'll also say this: My step mom concurred that there is not a word for "suicide," as the narrator points out on page 160, you tell how the person killed themselves (shot themselves, took pills, etc.), so that detail was consistent. All that to say that sign language is a complex and variegated language that probably shouldn't be overly-scrutinized (I didn't really lower the literary rating for this book because of these language-related questions).

I did lower the grade because of the ending. Now, I'll be honest, I try to review books critically, not personally, so even if an ending isn't what I wanted or expected, it can still be good. And this ending was good, but it definitely could have been better. The first reason I think it could have been better was from an editing standpoint: On page 191 the author writes a beautiful line, "For this moment all things were well placed," and then she continues on for another seven paragraphs. The actual ending line of the book is, "I would clap [my hands] together so fast that they sang, and that they made a new shape, that they threw sparks." The last line, as the way it's written, doesn't have the finality of the "... well placed," line. I felt the book should have ended with the realization of the placement of things--not with the swimming and on and on. All this would have required is moving the paragraph with the "... well placed" line to the end of the book. This would have made a monumental difference.

But here is what, in my opinion, would have moved the ending to the category of phenomenal: All throughout the book we've been looking at how the two events--the childhood death and the adoption--were correlated and I think this should have been shown in the ending. I think that the ending should have been some kind of epilogue or post script about Anna coming home, with everything "well placed" to manifest that in her external relationships. In her relationship with Adrea at least (but there's also a dad and a boyfriend and friends where this could have been shown). One additional scene of closure for the other half of the book--the entire storyline of mother/daughter bonding--would have moved this book into realm of awesomeness. It might have made my top ten of books with that additional piece.

Don't get me wrong, it's still good, probably top 50 books. But just a little lacking in the very final scene, in the place where I got my last taste.

Recommendation Lovers of literary fiction (think Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler) will love this in-depth look at family dynamics.

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