Laurel Hawthorne makes beautiful quilts, but she always puts in hidden pockets and secret compartments where she places something ugly - a bird's skull; a broken tooth. It's her way of acknowledging that everything beautiful has something dark inside, but she won't let it show. Laurel lives her life much the same way, tucking away her sordid family relatives in DeLop, Alabama and the ghost of her pervert uncle Marty, keeping those things separate from the picture-perfect life that she lives with her husband and daughter in a gated community in Victorianna, Florida. Everything is orderly and tidy until the hot summer night that another ghost comes to visit Laurel, the first she's seen in the thirteen years since she moved to Victorianna - her daughter Shelby's best friend Molly, who has drowned in the Hawthornes' pool. In order to find the truth about Molly's death, Laurel has to open the secret compartments and expose the ugliness to the light of day.
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming was surprising; it was far better than I expected and I found myself engrossed in solving the mystery of Molly's death. Laurel brings her sister, Thalia, to Victorianna to help; Thalia is the polar opposite of Laurel, an actress who is married to a gay man, a woman who lives life messily and loudly and brashly. Thalia cannot understand how Laurel can exist in her tidy little world, but Thalia has the courage to root out the truth that Laurel lacks. The novel is peopled with interesting, realistic characters, such as Laurel's husband David, a placid computer programmer who loathes Thalia; simple Bet Clemmens, a teen cousin from DeLop who has come to visit the Hawthornes (Laurel's own little charity project); Stan Webelow, a neighborhood man whom Laurel suspects in Molly's death; and Laurel's parents, especially her mother, who came from the poverty and squalor of DeLop but has managed to insulate herself beneath a veneer of Southern respectability and charm. Jackson also shows the secret side of the upper-middle class suburbs, with its alcoholics, cheats, and liars, contrasting it with the outright crime, drug addiction, illiteracy and hopelessness of DeLop.
Jackson keeps the pace moving as she weaves the threads that Laurel will pick apart as the days following Molly's death pass. She also cleverly uncovers Laurel's past and deftly guides the reader through a sort of journey both forward and back, a plot device that can often feel contrived or heavy-handed when used by other authors but not here. Laurel is the center and she needs to look both behind her and ahead if she is going to find her way out of the pocket within which she has hidden herself. In trying to protect her family, Laurel has frozen them, and Molly's death is the catalyst for Laurel's realization that it's no way to live. She has tried so hard to not be Thalia that she's more a sketch than a painting. There is only one awkward scene, which Jackson resolves nicely enough, even though it was a bit out of place with the rest of the book. All in all, a definite recommendation if you're looking for something with some substance and flair.