Title: Swimming Lessons
Author: Claire Fuller
Format: ARC hardback, purchased through BOTM
Start Date: December 10, 2016
End Date: December 29, 2016
Rating: 4 stars
“Not even a body to bury? I can’t imagine anything worse.”
We were silent until you said, “Of course that isn’t the worst thing. Finding the body is surely more terrible, more absolute. With a body there is no possibility of hope. … Without the body her parents are free to imagine, to hope for anything.”
“But maybe they’ll be hoping forever,” Jonathan said. “What kind of life would that be? You can’t exist like that, with not knowing.”
“It’s about believing two opposing ideas in your head at the same time: hope and grief. Human beings do it all the time with religion – the flesh and the spirit – you know that. Imagination and reality.”
I have been sitting on this review for quite a while. I finished it at the end of the year, after choosing this as my December Book of the Month choice. The cover was beautiful and I was instantly enamored by the premise. It reminded me of a scene from a book I read when I was young – possibly Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart or similar. This scene I recall is a library on a dark and rainy night. I remember someone disappearing, but under mysterious circumstances, similar to Ingrid, with no one knowing what really happened. Though not entirely relevant, this image in my mind of a memory from long ago slightly colored my view of this book. I was convinced I knew what happened to Ingrid, for it was entirely plausible that she just went for a walk – or got trapped in one of Gil’s numerous (possibly magical) books – and would pop back up at any moment. But, unfortunately, this was not the case.
Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons was an engrossing read about a woman’s departure from her family under mysterious circumstances. The narration alternates between the past and present day, between a mother and a daughter, between Ingrid’s letters detailing the story of her relationship with Gil and Flora’s story as she and her sister deal with their dying father.
During the weeks leading up to her disappearance in 1994, Ingrid wrote letters to her husband, leaving them in his treasured books to find and read later. Through these letters, we get a glimpse into their relationship: their initial meeting, her pregnancy, and their unhappy marriage. Through these continued revelations, the question of Ingrid’s disappearance is thrust into question – was her disappearance a tragic accident, as all presumed it to be, or was her leaving a voluntary escape from domesticity?
Meanwhile, Flora is struggling to reconcile her parents of the past with the idea of her parents in the present. As a young girl, she was naïve and innocent, and inadvertently created her own truths that varied slightly from reality. She ignored, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, the truths about her father’s infidelities and her mother’s unhappiness. Through her eyes, we get a slightly idealized version of a family missing their wife and mother, uncolored by the darkness that runs right below the surface.
I thought it was a very interesting premise that was done very well. The alternating points of view complemented each other nicely. I think the characters were very well-developed, and I felt myself caring about Ingrid, Flora, and Nan, though not as much for Gil.
On the other hand, the narrative itself sometimes seemed a little sparse. I ultimately had unanswered questions and was left with a vague sense that I wasn’t given enough concrete information about what actually happened surrounding Ingrid’s disappearance.
However, I think that was the author’s intention. She wrote in a way that was often, and purposely, ambiguous. It got to the point where the reader couldn’t trust the narratives of neither Flora nor Ingrid.
Ingrid wrote letters to her husband, but she also helped him write his best-selling novel. When asked if she also wrote, like her husband, she replied, “I write letters.” It makes you wonder if her letters to Gil depicted the truth or her fictionalized version of the truth.
Flora, too, could not be entirely trusted. At one point in the beginning of the novel, as she is travelling to her childhood home, she notices that it is raining fish. She keeps mentioning this throughout the rest of her narrative. This is something so preposterous that we have to question whether or not she is a reliable narrator. She also missed signs about her mother as a child that her older sister Nan had caught. Although we can chalk some of it up to her age and naivety, we can also attribute it to her seeing the world as she wants to see it instead of seeing what is right in front of her. I would have liked to get a different perspective – maybe from Nan’s or Gil’s eyes – and compare, thought that likely would have taken away from the story as a whole.
If neither Flora nor Ingrid could be trusted completely, who can we trust? What, then, happened during Gil and Ingrid’s marriage that made her leave – willingly or unwillingly? Was Gil such a terrible person, as Ingrid had portrayed, or was it a lie? How can we reconcile Ingrid’s version of Gil with Flora’s version of her daddy?
It’s frustrating, because I like to know the answers. I like to read a book and say, “Oh, that’s what happened,” close the book, and go on with my life. But that’s not what happens with this book. Instead, when you close the last page, you are left wondering what, exactly, happened. If you are like me, you might have imagined the ending one way, but you also could have taken away a completely different message. And that is the beauty of this book.
I really enjoyed this book. It was very beautifully written. I loved Fuller’s use of prose and her style of writing in general; it gave a quiet and almost ethereal quality to the setting. She made the characters seemed flawed yet human. And ultimately, she made this book one I will not soon forget.