Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
My Rating: 3 / 5
Average Goodreads Rating: 3.92 / 5
I need to start this review off by warning people the description on the inside flap is pretty misleading. “Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart..” When I read this description I was under the impression that this was going to be a fast paced mystery, with lots of twists and turns. Instead I got a quiet observation of a relationship over the course of a lifetime. It felt like this was incredibly similar to Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, with the women who feels stifled by her marriage to a genius.
Basically, Ingrid falls in love with Gil, her college professor. After a summer of romance Ingrid finds out she is pregnant. Gil, who has always wanted to be a father is overjoyed, and they are married quickly after receiving the news. After 16 years of marriage, Ingrid disappears. Her small English town eventually stops looking for her, assuming she drowned. Fast Forward to present day. Gil is getting older, and after an accident lands him in the hospital, his daughters come home to take care of him. He is convinced he saw Ingrid outside his bookshop and from there the mystery of what happened to Ingrid is revealed.
- The prose is stunningly beautiful. Claire Fuller can write. That woman can craft a sentence with so much elegance and grace. The writing pulls you into the story and suddenly you’ve read 100 pages in one sitting, when you only meant to skim the first few. This was the best writing I’ve read so far this year, and if I was judging the beauty of a sentence alone, this would have easily been a five star read. My favorite bit of her writing was when she would describe the setting. The setting plays such a huge role in this story, and she does a wonderful job of romanticizing the sleepy beach town. Beaches are beautiful, but the ocean itself is a dangerous and mysterious force, and the atmospheric descriptions create a constant tension between the people and ocean. There is also plenty of charming dialogue, especially in the early stages of Ingrid and Gil’s relationship, that warms the heart.
- Although the mystery is quiet, it is definitely intriguing. This is definitely not a page turning mystery, with mind blowing twists around every corner. However, the mystery is always there in the background of the story, and it is enough to keep the audience wondering what will happen next. Fuller does a great job of building tension, by reminding the audience every so often, that it is very possible Ingrid is still alive. The actual mystery of whether Ingrid really drowned I found less interesting than the why. In each of Ingrid’s letters more and more is revealed about their marriage, and we get these nuggets where we wonder if she planned to disappear long before she ever went missing. The reveals about their marriage, and the secrets they kept, were far more interesting in my opinion than if Ingrid was still walking the streets of England.
- You’re going to remember this book. There are books, that whether you liked them or not, make you think and keep you thinking about them long after you’ve finished. This is one of those books. It raises so many questions about marriage, love, motherhood, woman ambition, and the path not taken. This is a book I could definitely see working well for a book club, because there are so many things to discuss. I want people to read this, despite not loving it, just so I can talk to people about it.
- The characters in this book are awful. Every single one of the Coleman family is awful. Sometimes I felt like we were meant to feel sorry for Gil, especially in his old age upon his death bed, but he was the worst. From the very beginning, he is arrogant and pompous. He’s a drunk and a womanizer and as the story goes on, his behavior only grows worse. He did so many things in this story I found unforgivable. Flora and Nan, the two daughters, aren’t bad people but are so annoying. Nan feels this constant need to mother, but in the most judgmental and critical way possible. Flora, who I assume to be in her twenties, acts like a petulant child most of the book. She is incredibly immature, doing things I found very odd for a girl of her age. Like dressing up in her mother’s old clothes. Or constantly referring to her father as “daddy” in this cutesy, little girl way. She also seems to have serious commitment issues, which aren’t really ever explained. Was it because she felt abandoned? Was it because she watched her father constantly disappoint her mother? Or is it simply because she is just like her father and monogamy just isn’t her thing? I don’t know, because Fuller chooses to never tell us. Ingrid, I think we are meant to champion and to feel her pain, but she honestly came off as a selfish and as a weak woman. If she was so unhappy in her marriage she should have done something about it. Instead, she basically lets Gil take the driver seat in her own life, and just lets life happen to her. Although she knows of Gil’s affairs, she never speaks up to him about it. She just grows more and more unhappy, drifting further within herself. I could have forgiven this, because there are many women who treat marriage this way. What I couldn’t forgive, was the way she acted towards her children. She has such a defeatist attitude about her daughters, always using the excuse that she is a bad mother, instead of trying to become a better one. Most of the book I felt like she resented her daughters, especially Nan, and I just couldn’t understand how a mother could have so little her love for her own children.
- The ending is completely flat. Fuller attempts an ambiguous, “you decide for yourself,” sort of ending but it doesn’t work. The reader spends the whole book wanting answers about what happened to Ingrid, and they are never delivered. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much, if it weren’t for the epilogue. The epilogue made things unnecessarily convoluted. When I got to the end of the story I basically had that feeling of “that’s it” which is so unsatisfying.
Overall, I think the writing and structure of this book are beautiful. If you can appreciate a story for its aesthetic qualities, you will probably love this book. However, if you are someone who prefers a character and plot driven story over style, this one may fall flat for you.