Book Review: Learning Not To Drown by Anna Shinoda


Title: Learning Not To Drown
Author: Anna Shinoda
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 01, 2014


Family secrets cut to the bone in this mesmerizing debut novel about a teen whose drug-addicted brother is the prodigal son one time too many.

There is a pecking order to every family. Seventeen-year old Clare is the overprotected baby; Peter is the typical, rebellious middle child; and Luke is the oldest, the can’t-do-wrong favorite. To their mother, they are a normal, happy family.

To Clare, they are a family on the verge of disaster. Clare: the ambitious striver; Peter: the angry ticking time bomb; and Luke: a drug-addicted convicted felon who has been in and out of jail for as long as Clare can remember—and who has always been bailed out by their parents.

Clare loves Luke, but life as his sister hasn’t been easy. And when he comes home (again), she wants to believe this time will be different (again). Yet when the truths behind his arrests begin to surface, everything Clare knows is shaken to its core. And then Luke is arrested. Again.

Except this time is different, because Clare’s mom does the unthinkable on Luke’s behalf, and Clare has to decide whether turning her back on family is a selfish act…or the only way to keep from drowning along with them.

Debut novelist Anna Shinoda’s raw, gritty, powerful novel cuts right to the bone and brings to life the skeletons the lurk in the closet.


Love is blind and Ms Shinoda shows this perfectly in this book about a girl coming to terms with the truth she chose not to see. Set in a back-and-forth manner of going to her earlier memories and her present day life, she finds the comfort of lies she told herself fading away.

Clare Tovin’s earliest memories are not sweet. Remembering your eldest, sweet and caring brother being taken away, for ‘being at the wrong place at the wrong time’, never would be. But as her mother assures her, it will be ‘alright’ and that his brother is ‘innocent’. It is the combination of these two incidents and all that happens as a result that shapes the rest of the book.

In the present day setting when she’s seventeen, Clare lives her life in their small town with her family and a close circle of friends. Even if her elder (the middle child) brother Peter isn’t nice at all. Not all is well though, for she ‘sees’ the skeleton of her family whenever she encounters her entire family as criminals for having a family member in jail. Having her appear unaware of the reality of his brother’s sentence and trusting her mother early in the age has filled her with the belief that these people don’t realize that it was just a coincidence. It is clear that she adores her ‘framed’ brother Luke and is excited when she finds out that he’s out now (at the age of 29) and is now coming home to ‘start his life again’ – a phrase she has heard several times before, unfortunately.

Disappointed at his late arrival, the bond between the siblings snaps back into place as Clare mourns how she never got to visit him. And though the skeleton is now more evident all around her, she ignores the gossips with the hope of showing them all how his brother will turn his life around. Also deserving a mention is the small ‘sort of’ romance going on between Clare and Ryan, her ‘enemy’s’ boyfriend.

And then the world of lies she cocooned herself in begins to fall apart. As she too becomes suspicious in the view of the others, she begins to realize that not everything may be how it appears to her. That realization brings to many more realizations that shock her to the core and break away any preconceptions.

And having realized the truth of her family, she finds herself with a choice: To go back in her world of lies and pretend everything’s alright or to leave and start over away from this poisonous cycle.

Overall Rating: 8 out of 10

Verdict: The story is strong and well-written with the main character being quite easy to understand and relate. The grammar and writing isn’t noticeable at all, which is a good thing since it means that it is so good that the flow of reading isn’t broken by such mistakes. Alternating between the past and the present helps move the story along. The only reason for deducting those two stars? The story is great and amazing but not memorable. It’s one of the ‘read and forget’ kind. And the sad thing is that this type of story needs to be ‘remember forever’ kind so as to have a strong social impact.


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