Swimming Lessons – Book Review

swimming lessons

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.

Swimming Lessons 

Claire Fuller

356 pages. Tin House Books. Hardcover, $25.95.

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Character Portrayals in The Bald Soprano

The UMF production of The Bald Soprano was brilliant. Everything about the play, from the oversized clock to the portrayal of the characters, was more than I could have hoped for. I was honestly unsure about how UMF would be able to pull off such an absurd show, but they passed with flying colors. All the choices that Melissa Thompson made, from the play being comedic instead of dramatic to how it ended by repeating the beginning with the Martins instead of the Smiths was wonderful, and I enjoyed every minute of the show. 

One of my favorite aspects of the play was the stark difference between the Martins and the Smiths. Making it clear that these two couples were different in personality was something that I was missing from reading the play. On paper, it seemed that the Martins and the Smiths could be interchangeable; the Smiths could be the Martins, and the Martins could be the Smiths. Nothing about their characters stood out, and perhaps that was Ionesco’s point. However, I loved Thompson’s interpretation. I loved that the audience had a clear distinction of the two couples, being that the Smiths, especially Mrs. Smith, were loud and obnoxious and the Martins were monotone. The differences in the couples added more comedy to the show, and also added an interesting element to the play that I had not seen previously by reading it. 

The difference between the Martins and the Smiths was seen throughout the show, but was especially prominent in the beginning. The show started out with Mr. and Mrs. Smith sitting in the living room, waiting for the Martins to arrive, having “normal” conversation, or at least as normal as The Bald Soprano can get. The portrayal of Mrs. Smith was actually pretty similar to what I had imagined while reading the play. Mrs. Smith was, as said previously, loud and obnoxious and loved the sound of her own voice. Mr. Smith was a bit louder than I had thought he would be, however. I imagined him more matter-of-fact in the script, but I really enjoyed how he was portrayed in the show. His loudness was equivalent to his wife’s loudness and it added to the difference between the two couples, and the similarities within the couples.

In contrast, the Martins started out very monotone in the show, which made their first scene together funnier and more ridiculous. I thought that the scene was impressively funny, as I was not expecting to laugh so much at their interaction. The body movements, the monotone voices, and the repetition of the same mirrored movements all added up to a wonderfully funny scene. Then, adding the end in which the two fall on the couch out of happiness of finally realizing that they are married and had found one another, only to have the audience be told that they are in fact not married, just made it all the more hilarious.

Both sets of couples were intriguing in their own way, being that they were from both sides of the spectrum. No one in real life is as bland and monotone as the Martins were portrayed in the show, and not many are as loud and obnoxious as the Smiths, at least that’s the hope.

Suppressed Wishes in The Yellow Wallpaper

Sigmund Freud, as many know, was very interested in the unconscious and suppressed wishes and fears. In his theory about dreams, he believed that suppressed wishes came out in dreams in an arbitrary way. In the book How to Interpret Literature by Robert Parker, it is explained that the latent content, or the suppressed wish, has an indirect relationship with the manifest content, or a dream itself: “While the manifest content of a dream, the dream itself, may be more open than the consciousness of waking life to impulses from the unconscious, the dream does not represent a wish fulfillment directly, because the unconscious repressed wishes seem so threatening,…” (Parker, 128).

In the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, a woman who is ill is told to lie in bed all day to cure the illness by her physician husband. The woman in the story has suppressed wishes and desires, as she cannot speak openly because of her husband and his role as her doctor. For example, on of the most obvious suppressed wishes in the story is her desire to write. Writing is a passion of hers, meaning that the reader gets the feeling that the women needs to write in order to have some happiness and sanity, and when she is not allowed to do so freely, her creativity comes out in physical and mental forms. She hallucinates that there is a woman behind bars in the wallpaper in her bedroom trying to get out. She even sees the women “creeping” outside of her window during the day, believing that the woman can perhaps get out of the bars during the daytime. Because she cannot write and produce her creativity by writing, her brain and unconscious seem to portray her creativity in a physical and mental form, being the hallucination. While the manifest content is not in the form of a dream, there is still the latent content of her desire to write, and the manifest content is then the hallucination of the women behind bars in the yellow wallpaper.

The other perhaps most obvious suppressed wish that the main character has is her desire to be independent and to get out of her current situation. It is clear to the reader that this women is unhappy about her treatment of being told to stay in bed all day but it is enforced by the hallucinations of the woman behind bars in the yellow wallpaper. It could be argued that the women behind bars is the main character herself, but she cannot accept that so she says it’s a different woman throughout the story:

“The faint figure behind seems to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (Stetson, 652).

This manifest content is a bit less arbitrary than the desire to write as both woman, the hallucination and the main character, are in a way caged and/or trapped, however it’s still a manifestation of the suppressed wish. While she can dislike and write about her dislike of her situation and wish that her husband would prescribe a different treatment plan, the full acceptance that she wants out of her situation, whether that be the fact that she’s stuck in her room or even perhaps her marriage, is too threatening to accept, especially in the time period that this short story was written. Her husband is her doctor, and whether she likes it or not, she has to listen to him.   

Mythologies: The Romans in Films

In his “The Romans in Films” chapter of Mythologies, Ronald Barthes claims that in Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, “no matter, everyone is reassured, installed in the quiet certainty of a universe without duplicity, where Romans are Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead” (26). Basically, the viewer of the film is reassured that a Roman is a Roman because he is wearing fringe on his head. “The frontal lock overwhelms one with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome” (26). This is Barthes’ way of saying that he is critical of the cheesy way of showing one particular aspect of a character in a movie because that’s all it is. There isn’t anything intellectual or deep about it.

“the sign is ambiguous: it remains on the surface, yet does not for all that give up the attempt to pass itself off as depth” (28).

In many young adult movies and TV shows there is a character, often a girl, who is seen as unattractive and/or awkward. That character is classified as a loser by her peers and usually only has a few friends. Many times, the way to spot such a character is that she is wearing glasses. Glasses have become a symbol of unpopularity in such movies and TV shows.  

In the movie The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis, the protagonist, is seen as a nobody with frizzy hair and glasses. After she finds out that she is going to be a princess, she needs to go through a physical transformation. This involves that she wear contacts instead of her glasses. A character even breaks the glasses so that they are unwearable. The transformation goes as such:

When she gets rid of her glasses and brushes her hair, Mia is suddenly viewed as a beautiful young woman fit to be Princess of Genovia. Even though she is still the same person she was before, her physical transformation is what shows the viewer, and the other characters in the story, that she’s ready to rule a country, not her intelligence or personality.

A similar event takes place in the teen show Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. The character Lisa Zemo has a crush on one of the main characters of the show, but he does not return her affections because she wears glasses and has a bad haircut. However, when she returns to school after a summer vacation, she has gone through a physical transformation and is no longer wearing, you guessed it, glasses. After her glasses are gone, the main character tries everything in his power to win her love, not because she’s changed as a person, but because she is more beautiful now and less uncool.

Even in Superman, when Clark Kent takes off his glasses, he is no longer a nobody who works at The Daily Planet newspaper; he is a superhero who has fantastic powers and saves the city of Metropolis from dangerous super villains. 

Glasses have a similar effect as the Roman fringe. They show the viewer one aspect of a character in a cheesy way, that aspect being their lack of coolness. It does not change their personality or their ability to preform tasks, such as saving a city or being a good princess. All it does is show the viewer that with their glasses on, they are seen as losers, and when the glasses are gone, they become a better looking version of themselves. It lacks depth and literally and figuratively remains on the surface.