When Cora’s mother whisks the family away for the summer, Cora must decide between forging her future in the glimmering world of second homes where her parents belong, or getting lost in the bewitching world of the locals and the mystery surrounding a lonely old woman who claims to be a selkie creature—and who probably needs Cora more than anyone else.
Through the fantastical tales and anguished stories of the batty Mrs. O’Leary, as well as the company of a particularly gorgeous local boy called Ronan, Cora finds an escape from the reality of planning her life after high school. But will it come at the cost of alienating Cora’s mother, who struggles with her own tragic memories?
As the summer wanes, it becomes apparent that Ronan just may hold the answer to Mrs. O’Leary’s tragic past—and Cora’s future. (Goodreads)
The opening lines:
“Oh my,” Dad said.
“This has to be a joke,” I announced.
“It’s perfect!” Mom clapped her hands happily.
I proceeded to put down the book, followed by my forehead, and prayed for hope and patience because I was already quickly running out of those by page one. These first three lines scream the plot and the kind of characters I’m going to look forward to, and while it isn’t a bad way to open a book, it sets a humorous tone that doesn’t quite fit to the serious vibe the novel is implying in the synopsis. Or the angst that followed in the next 200 pages.
Cora, the Teenager of Angst and whose cheeks seem to have a life of its own (it blushes on its own and she talks to it), finds herself in a completely new neighborhood which gives her reason to angst more. In between her surly walks, she meets a strange old lady who tells her Irish folklore and an average, hot, sparkly brown-eyed, potential love interest swimmer who changes her life. We also have a few characters that makes Cora’s life relatively harder, like her Mother and her Father, the Third-Wheel, the Bestfriend, the Bimbo and Blondie (no really, she calls some people like that) and the ocean. Her only real friend is a dog.
Let’s get this on shall we? A warning guys. There shall be spoilers, rants, and
Contemporary fantasy is an interesting genre to play with because its two elements– fantasy and the modern age– clash together. Think of Carry On as it combines pop culture and magic or Percy Jackson on its take on Greek mythology in modern times. American Gods, while not YA, demonstrates the battle between ancient gods and technology. The inclusion of Celtic mythology in Learning to Swim is quite similar to how vampire lore is mixed into Twilight. Both have fantasy elements but are predominantly romance. This is quite a popular theme going-on in famous YA novels though the genre reaches back ages ago from classics such as The Little Mermaid, The Princess Bride, and our childhood fairytales that Disney just loves to perk-up into inspiring stories about love, friendship and courage. What is Cinderella without her fairy godmother or the Beast without a terrible curse? Cinderella would end up scrubbing the floor with her face for her entire life.
Fantasy makes any set piece interesting. YA even makes these stories even more engaging to all people of ages. Characters are more dimensional and real, for one thing, and they connect better to its audiences. The first and foremost a reader wants to feel (or atleast, me) is that they could relate to these characters, human or not. Learning to Swim presents us a very confused teenager and her love interest, a seal
Learning to Swim incorporates celtic mythology to its contemporary drama but doesn’t completely dwell into it. The fantasy elements are only realized through Mrs. O’Leary’s stories and Mrs. O’Leary herself, who is heavily hinted to be a Selkie and adds a flair of mystery to the story. The setting all takes place near the sea, which also serves as a conflict for the main character since she is afraid of water, hence the title. The novel brings you to a provincial setting that should really bring you back in time where life is simpler and idyllic and the ocean is just a walk away. I said earlier that contemporary fantasy mixes two different elements– fantasy and the modern age– together. Learning to Swim throws the protagonist in a completely different environment where selkies are whispered about and sirens are rumored to slay sailors and fishermen. I’m overstretching here because the book doesn’t even have world-building. While I understand that the book isn’t overtly fantasy, I wished I could have learned more about Celtic lores or for a more realistic setting, the culture of the people living around the island. Instead, I get a bunch of bland characters hovering around a protagonist who is so close-minded, the readers can’t even enjoy the characters around her. Have Cora ride a boat, climb a cliff, sell fish or something. Let her experience what it’s like to live near the sea. If a character is passive, then make her surroundings vibrant and dynamic. The ‘fantasy’ part of the book was so subtle, you could barely feel it. There was nothing magical about this book. Nothing.
Rory, the main character’s love interest, is a selkie (which Cora did not figure out until the last chapter, tsk tsk). I mean, sure, Rory likes to swim because of his selkie-ish traits but he also dreams to travel and help his family. He has a job, does housework, rescues dogs from drowning (which I suppose is under swimming but whatever) and he actually has a goal in life. He hates Cora too, so that puts him in my good spirits. And he points out Cora’s flaws and makes her cry (okay, now that’s just mean) but the girl had it coming, and it helped Cora see what she really is from the witty and snarky girl she think she is. His reasons for hating her is kind of immature (he hates her because she’s all rich and snobby… which is both true) but that makes him pretty human to me. Despite the effect of his glistering brown eyes and glistening brown hair to Cora’s hormones, I could empathize with him as a decent human being. To writers out there, at the very, very, very least, give your character personality, hobbies, and quirks that doesn’t have anything to do in being a vampire/seal/a toad/a child honed out of angst/whatever. Give him/her human traits we could all relate to, and this include flaws. This applies to all genres.
As for Cora, she isn’t a seal or a mermaid but she is this wealthy kid who falls under the stereotype of rich kids– they could only be mean, snobby and self-centered, which Cora fully embodies but does not realize. She’s a very dull character with no notable hobbies or likes so I find her badly written. If the book did a good job with Rory, it did an awful job to Cora. Since we’re seeing things from her POV, the readers should be able to step into her shoes but she only seemed to drive the reader away, which is kinda interesting and jarring at the same time when you think about it. But, if you ask me if Cora was an engaging protagonist? Nah. Her dog was livelier.
I hated Cora, let me just get that out. She is a huge, self-absorbed snub. She is judgmental, she is rude, she is -aurrgghhh- the worst. She practically hates every person she meets, otherwise, she finds them weird. I have to resist the urge to scream whenever she interrupts Mrs. O’Leary (the strange old lady) with her thoughts (just reading her think makes my head hurt) and her ‘witty’ talks with Rory were painful to read (it pains me more whenever she thinks she’s being clever, when she isn’t). This book can’t create a decent conversation without Cora’s thought bubbles (pretty annoying isn’t it?) rudely interrupting the flow. Let these people talk Cora. Shut up.
Even so, Cora has great potential. She is conflicted, she is flawed and true enough, the book paints her as a most disagreeable person. I have lots of issues of the confusing direction of her character—she can be nice and obnoxious all at the same time– and I blame that on the writing, but I appreciated Cora better when she realized how terrible she was and does little steps on changing the way she views people. I do think it could have been written much better but it’s a start for Cora and the book becomes far more easier to read after that.
As much as I like Rory and as much as I grew to appreciate Cora and as much potential I could see with these two, their relationship was developed in perhaps the laziest way ever. They barely talk to one another, they fight one day, and the next day, they’re okay and all lovey-dovey to each other. Their relationship was dull and rushed and I only have the expectation that ‘these two will obviously hit off because he’s the guy and she’s the girl and romance is listed in the genre, so yeah, they’ll smooch. I didn’t experience their blossoming romance because none of that happens here. They just hit off out of nowhere. If there was anything magical in this book, it’s how Cora and Rory’s relationship zip-off in the most incomprehensible way.
I’m bringing out the word ‘potential’ too many times in this review because that is practically what I saw in the entire book. I could see it had a lot of potential but it just doesn’t go there. It constantly builds-up towards nothing and sweeps all conflicts under the rug. It was a complete waste of time and I was completely baffled when it ended in a cliffhanger, because, apparently, there is a second book!
The Verdict: Two out of Five Hunny Pots
Woah. This review has been in my draft for so long because of the shit I have to get together to stop myself from banging my head on the table while I re-read segments of this book for this review and the content I have to add so this won’t have to go into a full-scale bloody rage rant (wuh?). Now, I just feel relieved that I got this book over. I didn’t like this book at all and I think it wasted a lot of potential. I did enjoyed studying the tropes present and not present in it and since there is a sequel, I do like to see the things I underlined above in the next book, if I do think about picking it up, which I doubt I will.