Claire Fuller’s book Swimming Lessons is a story of love, loss, and family dysfunction. I read Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days recently and I loved it so much I had to read the second. Both her books are adult fiction, and are not for the faint of heart. Both books deal with intense issues, but Fuller has a gift in writing about such issues in a really delicate way.
Swimming Lessons is about a woman named Ingrid who disappeared eleven years ago. She went into the water and never came out. Ingrid is the wife of the famous author Gil Coleman who wrote the book A Man of Pleasure and is the mother to Flora and Nan. Before she disappeared, she wrote letters to her husband and left them in the books he has collected over the years. Gil collects books with marginalia in them, for he has a passion for seeing what people experience and think while reading. The story is one that alternates chapters, meaning that every other chapter is a letter from Ingrid to Gil, and the alternate chapter takes place in the present in the perspective of Flora, Ingrid’s youngest daughter. In the present, Gil has taken a nasty fall off a promenade because he thought he saw Ingrid and his daughters have come home to take care of him. While home with their father, they discover that his collection of books has gotten out of hand and that he may be more ill than they thought. In the other chapters and through Ingrid’s letters, the reader gets to experience the relationship between Ingrid and Gil which, I’m just warning you, is not a particularly pleasant one. Just as an small example, the way that Ingrid and Gil meet is through college; Gil is Ingrid’s English professor and is twice her age. From there, the reader knows that their relationship is doomed from the start. She starts her first letter with stating that she will be speaking her truth, and boy does she. Within her letters, the reader gets to really experience the emotions of Ingrid and the love and hate she feels towards her husband and the happiness and heartbreak she experiences in those years with him.
I loved this book. From the very beginning, I was hooked. I could not put it down. The concept of the book, the way that Fuller handles the issues that arise within the pages, and her wonderful way of ending each chapter perfectly all add up to a spectacular read. Fuller also alternated chapters in her other novel Our Endless Numbered Days and her talent for this method of writing has not diminished. While reading, I felt everything that all of the characters felt even if I had not experienced what they had experienced. Fuller’s talent for delicately talking about difficult and sensitive issues is second to none, and her ability to allow her characters to show their true selves, no matter how damaged or horrible they are, makes the connection to the characters so much stronger. Even if I dislikes a character, I still wanted to know more about them which is a skill that I have not encountered in many writers. Claire Fuller is a writer who has mastered the ability to drive the desire of the reader to figure out the unknown but have fun and enjoy the ride to finding it out.
If you’re looking for a book that has a happy ending or a book with redemption, this is not the book for you. If that’s what you’re looking for, I don’t think Claire Fuller is the author for you. She tackles hard subjects and issues, as I’ve repeated many times, and if you are a person who does not like hard subjects, do not read this book. However, if you are a person who enjoys a strong connection to characters, mystery, and knowing what it’s like to be in a situation that is less than ideal and having no easy way out, this is the book for you. Fuller’s writing is beautiful and emotional and wonderful, and if you are like me and enjoy a book where you’re not sure what’s going to happen, read this book. You will not be disappointed.
356 pages. Tin House Books. Hardcover, $25.95.