Why I Didn't Fall in Love with Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (Spoiler Alert!)
Before you go too far, please note that there are some things you might not want to know about, closer to the end of this post, if you've not already read this novel and are planning to in the future!
After my love affair with Claire Fuller's debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, I assumed that Swimming Lessons was going to be one of my favorite books of early 2017. As expected, the writing is beautiful, raw and emotionally-charged; Fuller's talent with words continues to inspire and forces me to stop reading, often mid-sentence, to contemplate the messages she has crafted.
The publisher's description (the blurb) led me to believe that this novel would be about a married woman and mother, Ingrid, who has written letters to her husband, Gil, and left them in different books within his vast collection; after she finishes writing these letters, she "disappears." Years later, Gil believes that he has spotted her in their small town, providing hope to both he and one of their daughters, as neither of them has ever believed in Ingrid's death.
Have you ever seen a trailer/promo for a movie and thought to yourself, "Oh, that looks great; I definitely want to see that film." When the film is released, you rush to the theater and discover that, unfortunately, the trailer held the best portions of the film and you wonder, "Is this it?" That's the same feeling I had when I ran out of pages in Swimming Lessons.
Page after page, I kept waiting for something, anything to change: for the plot to move along, for the characters to develop, for the story to unfold, for answers or mysteries to be revealed...but it never happened. Maybe this is the empty feeling that Fuller prefers to have readers experience? I could make an argument for this, that readers are left feeling as empty as the novel's characters, but it also felt very unsatisfying.
Typically speaking, I can find at least one character with whom I am able to relate, connect, empathize but, in Swimming Lessons, I did not. Gil, a run-of-the-mill philandering college professor, not only sleeps with Ingrid when she was a student, but continues to have affairs with subsequent students after his marriage. Ingrid, through her letters to Gil, seems to be unaware (which makes me like her even less) and then shocked when she finds him with a student in his "writing room," a shed-like property adjacent to their home.
There were times when I found myself reminded of Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff; unfortunately, Swimming Lessons did not seem to equally utilize the power of perspective. Readers enjoy Ingrid's experience of her relationship to Gil (her letters are the best part of the novel), but there is no rebuttal.
Did Gil read the letters? Does he feel guilty for his sexist, dishonest way of life, now that he is faced with his own mortality? How did his relationship with his wife affect his relationship with his daughters? Where are Flora and Nora, their two daughters, in all of this? I'm all for an ending that provides for multiple possibilities and leaves unanswered questions, but there were just so many other paths to travel that would have been much more significant and could have made me fall completely in love with this novel.
I'm sure that I am in the minority; I have already read many lovely, glowing reviews. I feel like I could've copied and pasted this review of Among the Ten Thousand Things, a highly-anticipated debut, by Julia Pierpont; I read it in 2015 and felt like I was the only person who didn't "get it." Turns out, I wasn't alone; we'll see what happens with this one.