Hannah Roberts McKinnon: The Properties of Water

I don’t normally gravitate towards YA fiction, but when my 12yo daughter hands me a book and says “Mom, you have to read this” that is my cue to drop whatever else I am doing and read that thing.

The Properties of Water is a book about deep issues: family, siblings, tragedy, grief, denial, acceptance. It’s about a girl, Lace, whose older sister Marni is gravely injured in a diving accident. The whole family has to readjust their priorities, their worldview, their relationships, etc. The author doesn’t pull any punches. Lace’s attempts to come to terms with what happened feels very real. She spends most of the summer in denial — refusing to swim or even go near the lake where the accident happened, refusing to visit her sister in the hospital, distrusting the new housekeeper who assists them while the mother stays at the hospital, etc. But gradually she comes to accept the new order, and learns that the properties of water include healing as well as hurting.

There were two things I really loved about this book. One was the close relationship between the sisters. My own relationship with my sister was very very similar to theirs, and I could totally relate to both the love and the friction between them. They had me teary-eyed at times, and regretting (not for the first time) that my own sweet daughter only has brothers.

And the second thing I loved was the water. I myself am a water baby. I can’t get enough of the stuff, whether I’m in it, on it, or drinking it. Ocean, river, lake, pond, kiddie pool, bathtub — water is my element. Says Lace: “The lake is everywhere, soaking our beach blankets, sucking our toes, suffusing the air we breathe. Growing up on this lake, Marni used to say it was in our blood.” Yes, I have no problem believing that Lace’s relationship with the lake could be deep and complex and fraught.

I do have a gripe though. I really did not like the way the circumstances of Marni’s accident were only gradually revealed, even though the entire story takes place well after the fact. At the beginning of the book, all you know is that Marni and her mom are not there. You know there’s been a tragedy, but you don’t even know if they are alive or dead. Gradually you discover that the tragedy was a diving accident, that it was the cute boy that rescued Marni from the water, that she is in the hospital in another town, etc. It is only in the last 30 pages of the book that we actually get to meet Marni and learn that although she suffered a traumatic brain injury, she will be okay. Perhaps the reason the author parcelled out this information so gradually was to illustrate Lace’s gradual acceptance of the situation, i.e. we don’t learn “what happened” until Lace herself is able to think about it. However, this is a huge pet peeve of mine — withholding information from the reader that the character knows. I always feel like the author is manipulating me, getting me to keep reading by creating unnecessary suspense. Becca noticed this too, by the way — it was one of the reasons she wanted me to read the book in the first place. It was frustrating not knowing, especially since a book with these kinds of themes does not need to be suspenseful to keep you interested.

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  1. Rachel, what a great review. I don’t read much YA fiction either. I read more MG and children’s books than anything else. I haven’t heard of this book but will see if my library has it.

    • Thanks Vasilly! I have to confess I read adult fiction almost exclusively and it didn’t even occur to me to think about whether this book would be “MG” or “YA.” Actually I think this book is very appropriate for a middle schooler (like my daughter).


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