Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (2017)
Tin House Books
The romantic trope of the pathologically sentimental Artist and the ways in which he (it’s almost always a he) inflicts himself malignantly on those he loves to his great and passing sorrow is a trope I’ll admit I’m not overly fond of. Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons caught my eye anyway when I read its description while putting together my December BotM box—it’s the story of a wife and mother who’s disappeared, and she is perhaps dead but perhaps still living, nonetheless continuing to occupy real space in the lives of those she left behind through a series of biographical letters written before she went missing but hidden away in books scattered throughout the house. Her name is Ingrid, and she was (is?) married to a Great Author named Gil who swept her off her feet while she was very young, convinced her to have children despite her reservations, then abandoned her first emotionally and then physically in order to philander about with any number of women. The part of the novel that is not composed of her letters providing the hauntingly beautiful story of her life is told from the third person perspective of her youngest daughter, Flora, a floundering art student who idolizes Gil and who, like him, has never been able to fully accept Ingrid’s disappearance.
There’s an assortment of interesting characters in addition to the members of this family, and they all assist nicely in fleshing out the world of the novel and providing a measure of balance and something adjacent to an objective view of the family’s intensely troubled history and present, but my favorite character was the house in which everyone gathers to parse out the details of their complex situation. Called the Swimming Pavilion, the house is a converted changing rooms building at the seaside in England, a relic of Gil’s family’s former wealth. It’s one of those literary houses that the reader must appreciate in its uniqueness so that all the other parts of the book—all the characters moving through it and the events it shelters—can have their full impact, and I love it when houses operate this way in books, so this was a big part of my enjoyment of this story which contained, otherwise, a cast of characters I found largely unsympathetic though always surprising and engaging. I won’t say more about it here because discovering the house’s nooks and crannies and learning how it weathers over time is, I think, a major part of the joy of reading this book.
At times, the novel’s sentimentality became too much for me as it leaked over from Gil’s characterization into the plot’s denouement. (When I read the line “Baby shoes, never worn,” I heaved a literal groan.) While Fuller makes something brilliantly new from a familiar framework, I did wish at times that there had been a smidge less reliance on Gil’s (and Ingrid’s) magnetic attraction for symbolic gestures and interpretations of their own lives; this trick became a bit wearing after a while and I was ready to move on long before they were.
That said, I enjoyed this novel immensely, I confidently recommend it, and I look forward to seeking out and reading Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days just as soon as I can. Swimming Lessons had an early release through BotM, but it’ll be available for general purchase in February and I’d urge people to get in line for a copy. 4/5 stars.