First published in 2017
My rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Of It:
A well-written, character-driven novel about the life and death of a marriage.
The Long Of It:
Despite being a sort of quiet, understated novel -- not to mention character-driven as opposed to plot-driven, something I struggle with at times -- "Swimming Lessons" grasped hold of my attention and wouldn't let go.
Fuller is a talented writer, which I knew from her first novel, "Our Endless Numbered Days," but her second effort is even better. And the book has several things I like in novels: an English coastal setting, an author, books, letters and a relatable protagonist, plus it's told in dual-narrative format.
On the surface, the novel details the inner workings of an ill-fated marriage between a professor and his student, a girl who all-too-quickly becomes a mother, and who eventually vanishes and is presumed drowned. There's so much more going on, though. It's about love, motherhood and sisterhood, betrayal, grief, regrets, whether it's better to know the awful truth or to be left with a chance to hope, and that shocking revelation we get as we become adults ourselves that our parents had lives completely apart from being Mom and Dad. There's some levity and quirkiness, to be sure, but don't let the artsy, bright cover fool you -- this is not a particularly happy story.
"Swimming Lessons" is told both in present-day as the now-elderly Gil -- professor turned famous author -- is in the throes of illness, and through letters secretly written by Ingrid, his wife, in the early 1990s just before her disappearance and tucked in some of the books in Gil's massive collection. The modern-day chapters introduce us to their adult daughters, free-spirited Flora and uptight Nan, and I enjoyed getting to know them. But it was Ingrid's beautiful, raw letters -- for Gil to maybe find one day or not -- that carried the novel for me. Her letters detail her marriage from the moment she met her husband and explain to readers how everything went so terribly wrong. Ingrid is quite flawed, but so very real.
This is not an action-packed thriller, and there's not even much of a mystery. Instead, it's a beautiful, sad portrait of a family, and every member has his or her own issues to conquer. It's a good choice next time you want a contemplative, well-written story. It won't have you on the edge of your seat, but it'll get you thinking nonetheless.