Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.
Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.
I sure did a stellar job selecting a book with which to start 2018 – if I do say so myself. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller is a story of loss, grief, family, books, and disconnect. During the break after this paragraph, put it on your TBR list and get your hands on it ASAP.
Ingrid is in her early twenties when her relationship with Gil Coleman, her university professor and writer, begins. The start of that relationship is strained, rocky, and fraught with emotion and passion, as is the rest of the relationship. Later on, after marriage and two children, Ingrid disappears one day from their seaside home and the only thing she left behind, besides her three family members, are the letters to Gil that she’s tucked into the books of their home. Alternating chapters, Claire Fuller shows us the contents of those letters and what is happening now, when the two daughters are grown and Gil’s health is failing.
The path to Ingrid’s disappearance is not surprising. Her support system (her best friend Louise) breaks down, she is thrust into a life of severe responsibility that she is not ready for, and is married to an older man who cannot (and does not) let go of the bachelor lifestyle he’s used to, the one that led to their relationship in the beginning. She knows outright that motherhood is not for her, and hangs on for as long as she can.
Among the many characters in this novel is the ocean, in which Ingrid swam daily, and which serves as the scapegoat for her disappearance. About 2/3 the way through the book, I caught myself thinking, what is Claire Fuller saying about the ocean? And then, glancing at my notes, remembered this early passage of Gil scolding a few of his students:
“I asked you what effect those lines have, and you’ve all described what you think Jackson intended, what the lines do, or at least what you believe they do. In some cases you’ve most certainly got even that wrong.” You glanced again at Guy. “But none of you told me what effect they have on you. What they made you, the reader, imagine in here.” You thumped your chest. “You’ve missed the very essence of literature and reading. Who gives a fuck about Jackson and her intentions? She’s dead, literally and metaphorically. This book…and all books are created by the reader.”
To be perfectly honest, I do not feel a “deeper” meaning behind the ocean than the typical freeing, wild, ever-changing qualities it has in literature. It pulls, it calls, its danger is somehow comforting, but Swimming Lessons is too real to apply a more figurative quality to the great salty abyss; its attractiveness and significance is blatant, which allows for richer meaning within the love stories, the wandering, the human elements which we all want direct answers for, answers (and lessons) we’ll travel to the ends of the earth and the oceans to find.
Later, after the children were in bed, I went again to the beach. I lay on the grave with the stars shining above in the huge arc of the sky and wondered where you were lying, and I thought about all the things that have gone wrong and whether we will ever be able to put them right.