Relationships are a mystery to outsiders. Perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that so much literary fiction attempts to peer inside disintegrating marriages. Most of what we know of a relationships comes from what a friend, one half of that relationship, tells us, with the slant that comes with hearing only one side of the story. Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller, gives us two sides to the story of a marriage that ended with one half of the couple disappearing into the sea. Ingrid, the one who disappeared, tells us her story through letters written before she left or drowned. Another side of the story is told by Flora, one of the couple’s daughters, who saw her father with the admiring eyes of a child. As each chapter passes, more is revealed and heroes become villains only to be redeemed again. Swimming Lessons is one of the most elegantly written examples of its genre that I’ve ever read.
A short prologue sets up a family crisis that draws ever member of the Coleman family home, except for Ingrid who disappeared 12 years before. Gil Coleman, a writer famous for one salacious book, is browsing the local secondhand bookstore when he spots a woman who is a deadringer for Ingrid outside the window. He chases her, only to fall over a railing and breaking several bones. His daughters, Nan and Flora, come home to take care of him. It quickly becomes clear that Nan, the older daughter, has a very different perspective on things than her dreamy younger sister. They annoy each other so much that Nan starts to burst Flora’s bubble about her father and his formerly philandering ways.
Flora’s version of events is interesting, but I was much more taken with Ingrid’s story of her relationship to Gil. They met in the mid-1970s, when she took a class from him. The two immediately connected and started sleeping together. When Ingrid becomes pregnant, the pair are kicked out of the university; Gil is fired for sleeping with a student and Ingrid is told not to come back because she’s a bad example to the other students. The reality of parenting and bills is a cold bucket of water on the couple’s early intoxication with each other.
Even though the Colemans are a family, each seems fundamentally alone. They are all driven by something different. Gil is a hedonist. Ingrid is a realist whose early dreams were superseded by being the responsible parent. Flora wants love and to find an outlet for her creativity. Nan just wants everyone to stop pretending that everyone was perfect for once. Perhaps this is why stories of relationships are so fascinating. On the surface, they look like one story of two people finding each other and becoming whole. When we take a closer look, however, we realize that they are really the story of two people who choose to spend as much of their lives as possible together but who may never really meld into that ideal, impossible whole.
Even though Swimming Lessons is not my usual cup of tea, I very much enjoyed Fuller’s deft psychological portraits of flawed people. She is fantastic at slowing revealing important pieces of information that turn everything I thought I knew about the characters on its head.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be published 7 February 2017.