I was first drawn to Swimming Lessons because the description reveals that one of the protagonists leaves letters in books, an idea that I find beautiful. I love reading books about books or bookworms so when Penguin sent me a copy to review, I was really excited. However, in the end, Swimming Lessons wasn’t what I expected at all.
Read on to find out why…
This is the story of Gil Coleman and his family. A college professor who strikes up a relationship with one of his students, who he then marries and starts a family with. Things are rough for the couple, however, and one day Ingrid mysteriously disappears. A body is never found. Neither is a note. Swimming Lessons is set years and years later, beginning when Gil believes he sees his missing wife Ingrid in town and his daughters come back to the small town where their lives began.
What becomes glaringly obvious pretty early on is that this book isn’t about plot. In fact, it isn’t really about character either. It’s about the relationship between family members: husband and wife, mother and child etc. when it everything breaks down. The relationship between Gil Coleman and his younger wife is not plain sailing. They encounter many difficulties on the way, some because of who they are and the actions they take, and others are fate. They start a small family together but that doesn’t fix things and soon everyone is moving in their own direction and the family is held together by a few threads.
The writing is absolutely beautiful and will make you want to savour every last page of this mystery. There are numerous passages that you’ll want to bookmark for a rainy day and come back to in the future. There are others that actually made cry because of just how heartbreaking or sad they were. As I said, this isn’t really about plot so I can’t even tell you what ‘happened’ to make me shed real tears, but the pain of the characters is written about in such a way that you really feel it too.
One of the most powerful things about this story in my opinion is just how real these characters are. You don’t have to like them to enjoy this novel, in fact, you should probably dislike them. They are all seriously flawed in their own ways but I liked and appreciated this raw honesty from Claire Fuller. Families are not perfect and this novel shows that perfectly. There isn’t an absence of love really, but that isn’t all you need for a family to work, a harsh reality many of us will have to face one day.
I will admit, however, that this story was also a little frustrating at times. The mystery remains largely unresolved, which I suppose, was part of the point. The characters don’t know what happened to Ingrid, wife and mother, and neither do we. The lack of movement meant it take me a long time to get into this book and I will confess that at the beginning I didn’t really ‘get’ it. Once we were into the second half though, I found myself questioning everything I’d learned so far, piecing bits together in my head and frantically flipping back and forth to try and see if things matched up. There are a few plot twists in the later pages and the ending all happens very speedily so it well worth sticking to the end of the novel.
All in all, I would highly recommend Swimming Lessons to you if you’re interested in reading a beautifully written, poignant tale about family and relationships. There is something very compelling about this story even if the plot doesn’t move very fast. This is a slow burner but it turns into a roaring fire that you’ll want to snuggle up with when the day is done.