Book review: Swimming lessons by Clare Fuller

Swimming Lessons, by Clare Fuller, Tin House Books, 354 pages

You know how sometimes you find a book that clicks with you so that you have no choice but to suspend your life in order to cozy down with it?

Swimming Lessons is like that. It’s not a perfect book but it has some damn perfect moments.

Ingrid Coleman was a college student when she was seduced by her professor, a well-known womanizer. When she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, they marry and move out to an isolated area of a Dorset beach, where he’s inherited a small house they call the Swimming Pavilion. They have two children, and their marriage is rocky from the beginning. Gil, the husband, can’t stop having affairs and Ingrid’s knowledge of this is the central part of the book, not only the knowledge but what it does to her, the relationship with her husband and how it impacts their daughters.

One day Ingrid, who is a strong and frequent swimmer, walks to the beach and disappears into the sea. It’s ambiguous to the reader and family members if she’s drowned or orchestrated her own disappearance.

The book’s chapters divide between third-person segments from Flora, the youngest daughter’s point of view, and first-person segments of the letters Ingrid writes to her husband and then slips between pages of books in his massive (and I mean massive) library. The strongest segments are Ingrid’s letters, which are breathtakingly honest and written with a voice so lovely I hated to transition to the third-person chapters.

What makes Swimming Lessons so compelling is the way in which Fuller orchestras the plot, how the layers slowly peel off, how family dynamics are revealed and then questioned. How it becomes increasingly evident that there is no one truth but only different perspectives, that what one person says or does can be interpreted in so many ways, and usually in the ways that best fit the person doing the interpretation.

The only part I questioned was the last few pages, which I found to be unnecessary and clunky. But that’s a minor fault to lyrical and powerful story that flowed and ebbed, much like the rhythms of the sea.

My rating: 5 stars



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