Summary: After her brother's mental illness enters what can only be called a Death Spiral of Psychosis, Katie's workaholic father and alcoholic mother pack her off to boarding school four hours away. At first she overcomes her newbie jitters and fits in, impressing her swim coach, finding popular friends, and nabbing what we are led to believe is the cutest boy in a twenty-mile radius. However, her fear of others' reactions to the truth leads Katie to tell everyone her brother is dead, while his behavior back at home grows increasingly violent.
Writing: I opened this book convinced it would be a depressing slog through overwrought teenage hand-wringing, but instead Katie's first person narration is refreshingly sardonic and honest. More time is spent developing and describing characters than setting, but that only works to the advantage of this emotion-driven story.
Pacing: The story covers three years in only 320 pages with little to no drag time but still manages to avoid being rushed. Scenes are set quickly so the author can dig into the meat of the story: deeply-felt one-on-one conversations between various characters.
Characters: Katie is well-rounded and believable. She reacts in understandable ways to difficult circumstances. Her roommate Mazzie is, like Katie, a tender soul trying to wear a thick skin, and while she starts out with a stronger set of neuroses, she is able to turn around and care for Katie when Katie's life gets rough. How can you not like someone who hides in the bathroom cabinet to skip class? I laughed at the naive statements from Katie's ultra-religious, ultra-conservative boyfriend while still liking him for his insistence on seeing the good in everyone, even though he really thinks they're all going to hell. Katie's family is also fleshed out, their history explained, the path from Katie's childhood to the present. Her brother's insanity is in and out of the spotlight, but Katie never goes long without ruminating on their relationship as children and now: Should she stop loving him because he's criminally insane now, when he was her closest companion for so long? Can she stop loving her only brother?
And we also have a couple of typical snotty rich brats. I mean, we are in a boarding school, here. However, even they have backstory and motivation.
Plot: There are various story arcs in Katie's life: her brother's continuing journey into madness, her growing bond with her roommate Mazzie, her awkward relationship with her boyfriend (he's saving himself for marriage but oral is fine, thanks), her attempts to get into Yale, and her troubled relationship with her parents. All of these arcs are explored deeply and finally interwoven.
Ending: The story plunged into an emotional but uplifting finale, although it got a bit too high school graduation and cliched.
Cosmetic: The girl on the cover kind of looks like she's drowning, not swimming, but I think that fits Katie's circumstances. I was a bit confused because the back cover called the heroine a "swimming prodigy." First of all, what does that mean? She's a prodigy who swims, or a prodigy at swimming? In the book, she's neither. She constantly says swimming is the only thing she does well, and it is her claim to high school fame, but it's also openly acknowledged that she's not good enough to go pro or swim in the Olympics. That's not really prodigy quality.
What more did I want?: For me, the book was a bit too Gemma Doyle meets modern dysfunction (by which I mean, it was a bit girly.) While the brother's episodes of insanity were extreme enough that one every hundred pages seemed like plenty, I felt like the heroine's distance from him kept the reader from seeing the buildup in the interim between outbursts, so it was a shock when something else went wrong. I don't think the author was trying to wear kid gloves about the brother's issues; I think she was just trying to keep the focus on the heroine. Still, I would have liked more tension in the brother's plot line.