Courtney Angela Brkic


The First Rule of Swimming  |  Stillness: And Other Stories The Stone Fields


The First Rule of Swimming
Published by Little, Brown and Co., May 2013

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A woman must leave her island home to search for her missing sister - and confront the haunted history of her family.

Magdalena does not panic when she learns that her younger sister has disappeared. A free-spirit, Jadranka has always been prone to mysterious absences. But when weeks pass with no word, Magdalena leaves the isolated Croatian island where their family has always lived and sets off to New York to find her sister. Her search begins to unspool the dark history of their family, reaching back three generations to a country torn by war.

A haunting and sure-footed debut by an award-winning writer, The First Rule of Swimming explores the legacy of betrayal and loss in a place where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, and where individuals are forced to make wrenching choices as they are swept up in the tides of history.


"In her new novel, "The First Rule of Swimming," Courtney Angela Brkic conveys...dislocations with empathy and poetic grace... "The First Rule of Swimming" examines lives bruised and twisted by history, like weather-beaten trees that nevertheless manage to produce the sweetest fruit." -- Brooke Allen for The New York Times Book Review (an Editor's Choice)

"[A] suspenseful debut...The revelations are well-paced, and Brkic deftly walks the line between the sentimental and the intimate. The novel draws its narrative force from the characters' desire to protect family and to survive at all costs..." -- The New Yorker

"For Magdalena Babic and her family, home is Rosmarina - a cloistered Croatian island that matches their "heart's circumference" but whose government is controlled by a repressive Communist regime. Against this lush, confusing Mediterranean backdrop, Magdalena's sister Jadranka, an elusive, flame-haired artist who "resembles nobody else," suddenly disappears. To find her, Magdalena must take the first flight of her life (in more ways than one) to scour New York City, joining forces with her estranged mother, an Americanized cousin she mistrusts, and an exiled family member everyone thought long dead. As the search progresses, the story of the entire extended family begins to unspool. Particularly fascinating is the book's intimate portrayal of life in exile, how refugees became experts "at segregation, at keeping the various chambers of (the) heart walled off from one another, the same way that a single apartment building contained lives that never intersected." Author Courtney Angela Brkic manages to gracefully interweave three generations of family stories and lies and to inhabit the otherworldly minds of both the very young and the very close to dying, all with authority and wisdom. Though the novel has much to say about what it means to be home and what it means to be free, the underlying message belongs to Magdalena and Jadranka, two sisters who show us readers - and each other - what it means to be family." -- "Book of the Week" Selection

"The sense of dislocation is powerful in this novel, as is the yearning for and promise of refuge, symbolized by the beautiful Rosmarina Island. You won't soon forget this island with its craggy rocks, inky sea urchins and glistening seas." -- Washington Independent Review of Books

"In her exquisitely crafted, superbly structured novel, Brkic summons undertones of Greek tragedy to create her arresting characters and their intense emotions and dire secrets. By dramatizing nuanced questions of who is at fault, who can be trusted, and who will sink or swim, Brkic reveals persistent, multigenerational wounds of war, sacrifice, exile, and longing and imagines how healing might commence." -- Donna Seaman, Booklist [starred review]

"A sensitive tale of deep emotional force." -- Kirkus

"Courtney Angela Brkic's enjoyable family drama toggles through time and place as it follows a girl's search for her vanished younger sister. As her voyage spans from a Croatian island to New York City (with flashbacks to World War II along the way), tough-to-swallow family secrets rise to the surface." --

"As the novel evolves, every family member reveals surprising tales; the pieces of the puzzle fit together to create an endearing portrait of what we do for love." --

"The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic is an intriguing continent-crossing story of a woman who leaves a Croatian island for New York to find her missing younger sister, only to find her quest opens dark secrets about her family history." -- The National

"This compact, beautiful novel of two island sisters deftly explores what it is to love a place, a person, and the lengths to which one will go to defend them. Brkic is adept at depicting both the timeless paradise of the island, Rosmarina, and the way its brutal history has scarred a family for generations." -- Janet Fitch, author of Paint It Black and White Oleander

"Courtney Angela Brkic seamlessly negotiates past and present, silence and secrets, to reveal one family's enduring love-as profound and as perilous as the sea surrounding their island home. With beautiful images and characters that are vividly real, The First Rule of Swimming is a delicately written work of art, about history and memories and the grief at their fading and loss." -- Daphne Kalotay, author of Russian Winter and Sight Reading

"Between the dazzling light of an Adriatic island and the gritty streets of New York City, an intriguing world of possibilities - past, present and future - arises. Part-mystery and part-family saga, The First Rule of Swimming explores the variety of ways in which the physical and psychological landscape of a place can be altered forever by politics and immigration." -- Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day and Property

"Think of your most cherished memory. Now think of your saddest memory. What if the two were so connected to each other that one couldn't exist without the other? You'd have to find a way to forge forward, containing the pain and beauty, both. And you'd find a way. Because you must. And Courtney Angela Brkic's tender and tough novel The First Rule of Swimming could be your guide. In which case, you'd be in the best of hands." -- Joshua Furst, author of The Sabotage Cafe and Short People

"Brkic is a shimmering talent. She writes with precision and power about three generations of a family caught in a cycle of war, sacrifice, love, and loyalty. Brkic's portrayal of the family's brutal, mysterious transformation is held in perfect tension, and tenderly told in language that is as fluid and crystal-clear as the island seascape around which the story revolves. The thing that perhaps stays most with me about this book is its heart: vulnerable, resilient, generous." -- Mei Ng, author of Eating Chinese Food Naked


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