Published by Tin House Books
Publication date: February 7th 2017
When Claire Fuller’s newest novel, Swimming Lessons, begins Ingrid has been missing for eleven years. Her daughters, Nan and Flora, have grown up and her husband Gil now spends most of his time going through the books in their house. He’s always been obsessed with the marginalia and ephemera left behind inside their covers, but now there is something more. Because in the last month before she disappeared Ingrid wrote letters to her husband and left them in books. Fuller uses Ingrid’s letters as a portal into her past and a way of making sense of the present.
When Gil is injured Nan and Flora come home to take care of him. As the older sister, Nan is the responsible one while at 21 Flora is still the flaky artist who has yet to figure out adulthood. Nan is also forced into the role of truth teller who repeatedly must shatter the candy coated shell Flora has placed around her childhood and her father—a narcissist serial adulterer with little interest in supporting his family. These truths, plus Ingrid’s letters fill in a picture that is painful in its reality—a young wife and mother, married to a much older man, living in a small seaside community and often left alone with no help or companionship.
You brought me to this place, gave me children, and left; everything that’s ever happened to me in my adult life is because of you, and now you expect me to be able to manage on my own, like a fledgling deserted before being taught how to fly.
The only solace she has is when she swims and so she does, at night or in the early morning hours and even when she is pregnant with Flora.
There was something magical about those mornings, imagining the child suspended in its fluid while I was suspended in mine, both of us in our natural states.
When writing reviews, I sometimes worry about mimicking the author’s tone or style but in Swimming Lessons there is simply no way around it. Fuller evokes water, the sea and swimming so strongly they are the only words I can use. There is a plot that moves with a deceptive calm until the truth is revealed as suddenly and clearly as the ocean bottom in sunlight. Characters’ actions and emotions hit with the force of storm waves and, for some, there are rip tides that pull them out of themselves and leave them struggling for air. The novel is as immersive and unpredictable as the sea itself.
For those who don’t get caught up in the flow of Fuller’s words, Swimming Lessons may fall short. There are places, later in the book especially, where aspects of the novel are like a sandy bottom, with the propensity to shift. They are not sturdy enough to hold up, but Fuller’s talent is such a strong current that the story sweeps over them. Later, on the dry land of the mind, they may itch, but overall Swimming Lessons will keep you beautifully afloat emotionally.