This book was a staff pick of the month at the bookstore I work at, and wanting to be more well read and up to date on the latest book buzz, I decided to pick it up – but not just because it was staff pick of the month; I had read the synopsis and it actually sounded quite intriguing. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller is about a young woman named Flora who returns to her home to look after her father, Gil, after he has a bad fall. Twelve years previously, Flora’s mother, Ingrid, disappeared without a trace and Flora has always wondered what happened to her. Little does she realize, the answers to her questions are buried in the letters Ingrid wrote to her husband Gil. They reveal the truth of their marriage and just before she disappeared, Ingrid hid them in the massive book collection Gil accumulated over the years in the house they shared.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the book as a story itself; it was well written and well thought out with significant reoccurring themes and parallel images that made you think and connect things. However, the only downfall for me was the fact that the only character I really cared about and connected with was Ingrid herself, but I didn’t particularly care for Flora, even though half of it was told through her limited point of view. Her sister, Nan, didn’t stand out much either, nor did Flora’s semi-boyfriend, Richard. And I especially didn’t care for Gil – but that’s because he was an extremely unlikeable person in my opinion – and there’s nothing wrong with having an unlikeable character in your book, in fact it makes them seem more real that way. I guess you could say Gil and Ingrid were the most developed characters, Ingrid by far being more sympathetic, but I would have liked to see Flora develop more, she seemed a little too abstract to really connect with.
The story is told in dual perspectives and plot lines. Each chapter alternates between a third-person limited narrative following Flora’s point of view in the present day, and a second-person narrative from Ingrid’s point of view in epistolary style – letters addressed to her husband Gil in the summer of 1992. I often find when a story is split up this way, you always end up having one half of the book you look forward to reading more than the other half – and that’s exactly what happened with me in Swimming Lessons. Although I didn’t hate Flora’s chapters, I by far preferred reading Ingrid’s letters over them. Again, this is probably largely due to Ingrid being a more developed and intriguing character. And it’s interesting because Ingrid is a crucial focal point of the story, yet as you read, it remains questionable whether or not she will ever actually appear ‘on screen’ as it were in the present plot line. Everything about her is ghost-like and reeks of the past, remnants of what was – but she never seems to fully enter the realm of the living, or does she? You’ll just have to read and find out…
Early on in the story we find out that Gil is an author and was Ingrid’s writing professor when she was at college. I really loved the themes running through the book about being a writer and what stories mean to the reader, how every story is always reconstructed every time it’s read, kind of like the saying, “You never walk through the same river twice.” Every story is interpreted differently each time it’s read by someone, and I really liked how Swimming Lessons played with that notion and themes of reality and imagination, hope and speculation, and ultimately, the truth. I also enjoyed the parallels drawn between Ingrid’s letters in one chapter and the present day happenings and dialogue in Flora’s chapters. As I was reading, I realized there were little hints of foreshadowing, certain images and things that are said or done that carry more significance later when they’re connected to the truths that actually occur.
One other critique apart from some of the flat-ish characters is the cliched insta-love that happens between Gil and Ingrid. In her letters, Ingrid recounts to Gil about how they first met and got together, and whilst reading it I couldn’t help but notice the glaring insta-love cliche between professor and student. This happens right away in the book and isn’t spoiling anything since we already know they get married. Essentially, Ingrid becomes infatuated with Gil for basically no reason other than I presume because she thinks he’s handsome. And Gil, in his snobby, narcissistic way, mostly ignores her at first but finally seems to take notice of her in the most cliched, out-of-the-bue way: by pursuing her by taking her out for a drink, becoming magically intrigued by her defiant, quiet nature, and randomly writing a letter to her about how they’re going to spend their life together… I mean come on, really? Right off the bat even before that, Gil was disrespectful to her and selfish (I won’t give specifics), and I just didn’t understand at all why Ingrid still liked him and was intrigued by him. As for Gil, I didn’t understand either why he suddenly pursued her and later wanted to marry her, only to be a terrible husband to Ingrid anyway. I just didn’t understand what attracted them to each other, thus, the basis for their marriage even occurring at all seemed like a stretch to me. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t let this deter you from doing so as it was over quickly and the rest of the book is still good enough to overshadow this cliched blip. It was just something I noticed and had to rant about and I’m curious, if you have read it, did you feel the same?
Overall, Swimming Lessons has strong elements of plot, theme, narrative, voice, motive and writing style. Flora’s chapters did slow things down a bit for me though, and because of that it wasn’t the kind of book that I ate up, even though it wasn’t a very long book. But it was cleverly constructed and executed well; a sad but poignant story with a satisfying ending. It’s the kind of book that I think would make for a great book club read as there’s much to discuss and analyze and speculate on.
As a side note, there were a few quotes in the book that Gil said with regards to writing, reading, and imagination that I really liked and I thought I’d include them here for fun. Enjoy!
“Secret truths are the lifeblood of a writer. Your memories and your own secrets. Forget plot, character, structure; if you’re going to call yourself a writer, you need to stick your hand in the mire up to the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder and drag out your darkest, most private truth.” Pg. 17
“Some of you, especially those tortured souls who like to think they’re poets…might fantasize about the idea of scribbling away in your garret, unappreciated by the literary world until you’re in your grave. But there really is no fucking point. Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader. What do you think happens in the gaps, the unsaid things, everything you don’t write? The reader fills them from their own imagination. But does each reader fill them how you want, or in the same way? Of course not…all books are created by the reader. And if you haven’t realized that and what it means to your own work, you know shit-all about writing and you’re never going to, so you might as well stop now.” Pg. 26
Gil talking about readers leaving behind notes and doodles in the margins of books: “Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words…are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman or child – who left something of themselves behind.” Pg. 112
“I’m beginning to think it’s better to know, one way or the other. It’s taken me a long time to realize, but i don’t think it’s good to have an imagination which is more vivid, wilder, than real life.” Pg. 113