Drowning Instinct

Drowning Instinct
Author(s)
Genre(s)
Age Range
16+
Release Date
February 01, 2012
ISBN
978-0761377528
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There are stories where the girl gets her prince, and they live happily ever after. (This is not one of those stories.) Jenna Lord’s first sixteen years were not exactly a fairytale. Her father is a controlling psycho and her mother is a drunk. She used to count on her older brother—until he shipped off to Afghanistan. And then, of course, there was the time she almost died in a fire. There are stories where the monster gets the girl, and we all shed tears for his innocent victim. (This is not one of those stories either.) Mitch Anderson is many things: A dedicated teacher and coach. A caring husband. A man with a certain... magnetism. And there are stories where it’s hard to be sure who’s a prince and who’s a monster, who is a victim and who should live happily ever after. (These are the most interesting stories of all.) Drowning Instinct is a novel of pain, deception, desperation, and love against the odds—and the rules.

Editor review

1 review
They Found Love in a Hopeless Place (sorry, I had to!)
Overall rating
 
4.7
Plot
 
5.0
Characters
 
4.0
Writing Style
 
5.0
Ilsa J. Bick is a master of dark novels that suck in the reader. Her post-apocalyptic ASHES kept me up all night, and DROWNING INSTINCT is a book that will stay with me, as well.

Our heroine, if she can be called that, is Jenna, a sixteen-year-old who has been dealt a rotten hand. She was almost killed in a fire during childhood, leaving her with scars (aside from the ones she gives herself), her mother is an alcoholic who is losing her bookstore, and her father is controlling and abusive. Usually young adult characters with miserable lives have one bright spot, yet Jenna's is in the past--her brother has shipped out to Iraq and left with no support. It is in this state that she meets the charismatic science teacher, Mitch Anderson.

As a teacher, I am particularly squeamish about student-teacher romances in novels, yet Bick is successful in portraying the relationship as objectively as possible. I still thought Mr. Anderson was a creep, but Bick makes it difficult to condemn him wholeheartedly. He is the only adult who cares about Jenna, and if his kindness is a welcome respite for the reader, one can only imagine how important it is to Jenna. Even as Mr. Anderson's character became darker, I wanted to postpone the inevitable end of their relationship because it provided temporary hope for Jenna.

Anyone who is familiar with Bick's work knows that this novel is challenging, gritty, and exquisite. It's worth picking up, if only to make you grateful for what you have.
Good Points
Bick's writing is incredible--dark and addictive
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User reviews

2 reviews
Overall rating
 
5.0
Plot
 
5.0(2)
Characters
 
5.0(2)
Writing Style
 
5.0(2)
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Dark, haunting, and gorgeous
Overall rating
 
5.0
Plot
 
5.0
Characters
 
5.0
Writing Style
 
5.0
We readers like to torture ourselves with dark, depressing stories about awful things happening to perfectly nice people. It’s a true thing. And usually, these terrible stories make us massively uncomfortable, and we tend to wind up with a very severe case of The Feels. These are the books that crush our hearts and make us mope in bed all day. These are the books that give the most impressive book hangovers.

Drowning Instinct is one of those books.

Beyond the painful reading, however, Drowning Instinct is a book that makes ugly things beautiful, that makes you question right from wrong. The taboo is made to look, if not okay, at least understandable. And while this goes on, this book is very self-aware; it knows that what it portrays is controversial, and so it goes about its topics in the most straightforward manner possible, not stopping to sensationalize or exaggerate. And because of that, Ilsa J. Bick was able to tell Jenna’s story in a raw way that felt real and full of authentic emotion.

In some ways, Drowning Instinct reminded me a lot of Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma—instead of incest, the taboo covered in this novel is consensual sex between a child and an adult (student/teacher), but the feeling was the same. Yet where Suzuma approached her story like a soap-opera, and milked her characters for every ounce of emotional angst they had, Bick did the opposite. Jenna’s story, told directly to the reader in her own words, is organic and grew naturally, making it that much more impacting in the end game.

Jenna, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is 16 years old and hasn’t had a great life. She’s suffered from sexual, physical and verbal abuse; and she’s just spent 4 months in a psych ward for her practice of self-harm. She starts over at a new school, hoping to leave the past behind. If this were a typical YA novel, Jenna would meet a super-sexy boy in her English class, and they would swear their eternal devotion after some teenage angst. But Drowning Instinct isn’t a typical YA novel; Jenna catches the interest of a male, but it’s in the form of her chemistry teacher, Mitch Anderson. And from there, this book is one emotional ride to a stunning conclusion.

To be completely honest, student/teacher relationships are not something I enjoy in fiction. Ever. But the way Ilsa J. Bick approached it was respectful and, as I said, self-aware. Because of the way things between Jenna and Mr. Anderson played out, it was hard to condemn their relationship, even while Jenna herself admitted it was unhealthy, illegal, and very, very wrong. At the same time, there was not a doubt in my mind that the two of them were in love—honest-to-goodness love. And that is why this book is so brilliant; it takes everything you believe and think you know and turns it upside down. Because how could I possibly hate the actions of two people who were genuinely good for each other, in spite of the less than perfect circumstances?

This is what Forbidden tried to do, but couldn’t. This is why Bick gets major respect from me. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to write about two people who were in a relationship that was every definition of wrong, but was still somehow right. Honestly, it was hard enough to read about it.

Obviously, Drowning Instinct will not be for everyone. This is one of the darkest YA contemporaries I’ve ever read; it’s full of grim emotion and desperate people, screwed up families and unhealthy romance. But at the same time, it gave me a new perspective where I didn’t expect to find one. Really, any book that makes me feel even slightly accepting toward statutory rape is one that is worth some pretty heavy attention. Drowning Instinct is a brilliant, intense novel that manages to be beautiful in spite of the torture it puts readers through. It deserves far more attention that it has received to date.
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Gripping Contemporary that will Hold You in the Depths to the Last Page
Overall rating
 
5.0
Plot
 
5.0
Characters
 
5.0
Writing Style
 
5.0
I want to read this book again, to peel back even more layers. It was so wonderful and delicious and powerful. Full. Of. Life.
Good Points
This book will shudder through you like the slow way cold creeps up your sleeves and under clothes to chill you to the core, where bone is. And blood. It comes full circle in a way that holds you until the very last possible moment, then leaves you feeling whole and empty at the same time. A beautiful paradox. I found the message and the meaning quite profound and worthy of rereading. Not many books are that good, but Drowning Instinct, sure as hell is that kind of book.

It's a book that doesn't point fingers. It takes an alarmingly honest look at all the people involved in a story so complex, it's like a watch that has to slowly tick away the pages until it's unwound enough to fall apart in front of you so you can see everything and understand and know what the writer was trying to say. It's a beautiful journey, full of fully realized characters that draw you in the way a blade hovers over skin, waiting to cut deep and draw out the blood.

I was mesmerized by this story, and not just because Ilsa takes the time to choose each and every word carefully, or that I've added at least 25 new words to my vocabulary, although, I love that part, too. I loved the premise, the way the story was structured, the way Jessa tells the entire truth to the detective and where it ends, finally. I'm even okay that it wasn't all wrapped up neatly with a bow at the end. It was real, the way life is, and left several things unknown and exposed like a raw nerve. I like that Ilsa trusts the reader to fill in the gaps, to ultimately decide how these characters, and their stories resolve. I think she did her job and presented the stories as honestly and truthfully as she could, and I love the part I played as the reader in joining in the story, too.

By the end, I was pulled under the surface. And, I'm not sure if I struggled against it, or if I looked calm, the way a person does when they're drowning. It is instinctual, after all.

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Hurts So Good
Whoa. What an incredibly dark and well-done novel. I have absolutely no doubt that Ilsa J. Bick will come to be recognized alongside authors like Laurie Halse Anderson. She clearly has no problem plumbing the darkest and most terrifying of human emotions. Like Anderson, she also focuses on teens, on the bad stuff - not the shiny vampires and the sweet first loves.

Reading this book...it's going to hurt. Jenna is incredibly messed up. You learn this up front. She's spent a year in an institution, put there after it was discovered that she'd been cutting. So yeah, going into it you know her family's a mess and that she is too, but you don't know the full extent of it. The awfulness just keeps on rolling; I only wish that there were not people out there who have likely actually lived lives like Jenna's.

The main plot is about Jenna's relationship with an older man, her science teacher Mr. Anderson. Obviously, this too is a completely dark and forbidden thing. At the outset, you don't know what's going on exactly, but you definitely have your suspicions and you're pretty sure it's bad. Bick does an amazing job of highlighting the difficulties of understanding such a case.

Nothing in this book is black and white. For one thing, Jenna is not an especially reliable narrator. It's hard to know how much of what she believes to be true is actually true. Such realizations can be just as mind-blowing as reading through the book itself is. I got completely sucked into her story and to seeing from her point of view. Then, when I would step back and think about it, I had to face the fact that things may not be what they seem at all.

Fans of Laurie Halse Anderson or Patricia McCormick will love undoubtedly love this book. Do not read it without due preparation: i.e. tissues and/or something super sappy and happy to help you recover afterwards.
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