Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
What made this book a great experience for me is that I started with low expectations, and was consequentially floored by its depth of feeling. The back cover of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller reads like a typical family drama, with a poetic twist. A daughter went to care for her ailing father because the wife, her mother, was not around to do it. Little did she know, an explanation for her mother's disappearance, and presumed drowning, is written in letters tucked away in books around her father's house. Of course, it was the book element that drew me in, but I stuck around because of the incredible and heartbreaking tale Fuller wove.
I was a sucker for the format of the story from the beginning. I love books structured in short chapters with alternating perspectives - I find this motivates me to read more hungrily. Every other chapter was also in the form of the mother, Ingrid's letters, and this personal, letter-writing voice is also a weakness of mine. I certainly believe my best writing takes place when I am writing to someone else in an intimate correspondence. Fuller draws you in on this intimacy. And it isn't just the letters, but the role of the sea, of nudity, of unbridling oneself from that which weights one down to float freely, that washes the narrative easily across your consciousness in an intimate embrace.
It tells the intersecting tales of mother and daughter, highlighting how the same man - Gil, the husband / father - is remembered so differently. And isn't the always the case? Children are often protected from the worst truths. In the mother's letters, she tells their love story. He, her creative writing professor. She, half his age and determined to travel and know the world before ever settling into marriage and motherhood. Of course, quite quickly, she gets pregnant. And learns that her older husband is complicated, constantly entertaining other women and living vibrantly so as to draw on the energy of others' for his writing. She finds herself stuck in a life by the sea that she never wanted, uncomfortable in her roles as homemaker and mother. She is comforted only by her swimming. She writes her husband parting words during sleepless nights, tucking them in to the hundreds of books he keeps, as a collector of used books - not for their printed words, but for the notes written by readers in the margins (I loved this detail).
Meanwhile, a decade later, her daughter, Flora, too feels somewhat lost. Her older sister is the grounded sibling, as Flora roams around, half the time naked. She is called back to her father's home, now overflowing with books, when he falls ill. Her lover randomly follows her, and his dedication to her becomes clearer and clearer with each passing page. They open and close books, learning from Gil in his final days how to tell a male notetaker from a female notetaker in these used books. Gil is insistent on finding a particular lost book (it is clear he did find the letters) and is also insistent on burning the books so that his children do not find the letters themselves. Flora never knows that her mother's history is written in the pages that surround her, but she does come to know a more three-dimensional version of her father, of her caretaker sister, of her lover and, ultimately, of herself.
I enjoyed this Sunday read not because it was unlike any story I had ever known before, but exactly because it read so clearly like a few real stories I know of adultery, parenthood, heartbreak and literature. It was done simply and beautifully - decades lived in a house by the sea, delivered in dewey drops of vulnerable prose about water and fire, with books to either soak the puddles or catch the flame.