The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

lissyreads book review

Title: The First Time She Drowned
Author: Kerry Kletter
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / YA
Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Cassie O’Malley has been trying to keep her head above water—literally and metaphorically—since birth. It’s been two and a half years since Cassie’s mother dumped her in a mental institution against her will, and now, at eighteen, Cassie is finally able to reclaim her life and enter the world on her own terms.

But freedom is a poor match against a lifetime of psychological damage. As Cassie plumbs the depths of her new surroundings, the startling truths she uncovers about her own family narrative make it impossible to cut the tethers of a tumultuous past. And when the unhealthy mother-daughter relationship that defined Cassie’s childhood and adolescence threatens to pull her under once again, Cassie must decide: whose version of history is real? And more important, whose life must she save?

A bold, literary story about the fragile complexities of mothers and daughters and learning to love oneself, The First Time She Drowned reminds us that we must dive deep into our pasts if we are ever to move forward.


It’s been a while since I’ve read a book this hard. From beginning to end I was on the edge of my seat, wanting the best for Cassie and feeling so much empathy for what she has and had to go through.

This story is very trigger heavy. If you would like a trigger list, please message me privately. I adore this book, but I also know that it could be very difficult in the wrong hands.

Cassie O’Malley wakes up one morning weeks before her sixteenth birthday to her parents and older brother standing over her bed… with ropes in their hands. They drive her hours away to a mental hospital and leave her feeling abandoned and broken.

Fast forward to 18. Cassie can now legally check herself out of the mental hospital. She’s both nervous and excited about seeing the world again. But what she doesn’t realize is that the world is a much harder place than a mental hospital ever could be.

Cassie leaves the mental hospital and attends college: Dunton, the same college her mother went to. And things sort of happen to her. She gets sick with pneumonia and has to call on her neighbor to take her to the hospital. This is how she becomes friends (and subsequently roommates) with Zoey. A quirky, funny, really normal college girl that allows Cassie to be who she is while also pushing her to experience life.

She meets Chris in the first class she ever attends, and quickly notices that in spite of her attempts to push him away, he keeps coming back to her. He forces her to look at herself in a way she never had before.

The relationship at the core of this novel, however, is Cassie’s relationship with her mother. It’s a classic through line that’s heightened dramatically. There’s something very wrong with Cassie’s mother. She’s not compassionate with her daughter. It’s clear as the novel progresses that Cassie is a scapegoat for everything wrong in her mother’s life. And that has severe consequences on Cassie’s mental health. For most of her life Cassie has had to look at herself through her mother’s tainted lens. But as she finds herself in meaningful relationships, she finds more lenses to look through. The only one she doesn’t have, however, is her own.

The story unfolds in the present: Cassie barely surviving life at college. But she spends quite a lot of time remembering moments from her past. Almost as if leaving the place she hid inside herself allowed her subconscious to come screaming out. The two flow very well together and meet at a head I didn’t see coming.

The writing of this book is phenomenal. Kerry Kletter is a master with words and imagery. I loved the constant theme of water. It felt visceral and terrifying.

There is so much I want to say about this book. I want to talk about her mother, about how mental illness is so very prevalent and deep within these pages. I want to talk about Chris and how he sees beyond Cassie’s facade. I want to talk about the ending, and what I hope happens to her beyond these pages.

I will be coming back to this book. There is so much to sift through and reading it once is not nearly enough. But for now I want the words and the lessons to work through me. I can’t wait to see what I end up doing with it.

So I’ll leave the review with one last thought. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Cassie learn to see herself through her own eyes.


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