Book Review | The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

Published by Philomel Books on March 15, 2016

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 352

Source: Library


Cassie O’Malley has been trying to keep her head above water—literally and metaphorically—since birth. It’s been two and a half years since Cassie’s mother dumped her in a mental institution against her will, and now, at eighteen, Cassie is finally able to reclaim her life and enter the world on her own terms.

But freedom is a poor match against a lifetime of psychological damage. As Cassie plumbs the depths of her new surroundings, the startling truths she uncovers about her own family narrative make it impossible to cut the tethers of a tumultuous past. And when the unhealthy mother-daughter relationship that defined Cassie’s childhood and adolescence threatens to pull her under once again, Cassie must decide: whose version of history is real? And more important, whose life must she save?

A bold, literary story about the fragile complexities of mothers and daughters and learning to love oneself, The First Time She Drowned reminds us that we must dive deep into our pasts if we are ever to move forward.


The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter is one of those rare books that I think everyone should read. It follows eighteen-year-old Cassie as she checks herself out of the mental hospital where she’s lived for the past two-and-a-half years, and embarks on what she hopes will be a normal college life. Not only was I extremely intrigued with this premise, but I was immediately sucked in upon discovering that Cassie claims she doesn’t belong in the hospital. Instead, Cassie says, her mother put her there against her will for no reason.

I was absolutely sucked into this book from page one because of this gripping story. Part of me thought Cassie was hiding something, for what kind of parent puts her child in a mental hospital if there is nothing wrong? The other part, however, wondered if Cassie’s mother was truly the one with mental health issues. I flew through this book trying to piece together the truth.

In addition to the story, I fell in love with Kletter’s writing style. The First Time She Drowned is carefully crafted, and written both in the present and in flashbacks. The author paid very close attention to the role of water in this novel. Many of the metaphors have to do with water, and I am amazed with how well she used this tool to her advantage. The writing is quite lyrical, and at times very haunting. It created the perfect atmosphere for the story.

Moreover, The First Time She Drowned is a true family tragedy. Readers get to know Cassie and both her immediate and extended family as the story evolves. While there are many characters that I didn’t like, I empathized with them. I won’t go into detail about the family history, as I think it is better discovered through reading the book, but what I will say is that every character is suffering in his own way. My heart broke not only for Cassie, but for her mother as well.

Finally, the ending of the book took a different turn than I was expecting. However, that is not a bad thing. While The First Time She Drowned isn’t wrapped up in a pretty bow at the end, it left me hanging in a way that made me think. This is a very rereadable book, as the next time I pick it up I will have an entirely different mindset from the start. I truly appreciate how The First Time She Drowned discusses mental health in a raw way, and demonstrates how important it is to care for those around you while also taking care of yourself.

As you may be able to guess, I highly recommend picking up The First Time She Drowned. It is one of the best young adult contemporary novels I’ve read this year, and one of my few five-star ratings. If you love emotional books with unreliable narrators, then you will absolutely love this book. I know I will be reading whatever Kletter writes in the future.


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