Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller – Book Review


I received a copy of this book from Anansi Press in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a little gem. At 294 pages it packs as much story and feeling in it as a 400 page book.  While the plot is portrayed as a study of a marriage, I found it was much more than that.  It was also about betrayal, motherhood and sisterhood – the usual blood relationship we mean when we call someone a sister, but also the best friend that is considered a sister.

The novel begins in the present with Gil Coleman. He is in a bookstore when he happens to look out the window.  He believes he sees his wife, Ingrid, who disappeared years prior and was assumed dead.  While running after this woman, he injures himself and is hospitalized.  His oldest daughter, Nan contacts her sister, Flora who ends up coming home to help look after her father.

Through letters that Ingrid has written to Gil over the years, we learn how they met, their marriage and their life.  They meet when Coleman is a university professor and Ingrid is his student.  He is twice her age, a heavy drinker and a published author.  Ingrid is quiet, not very confident and lonely.  It doesn’t take long after she begins his class that their affair begins.  It also doesn’t take long for her to become pregnant with their first daughter, Nan.  Once pregnant, Gil is determined to marry Ingrid and while they do tie the knot, Ingrid’s sacrifice is great – only needing to complete her final exams in order for her to receive her diploma, she is expelled from university for having the affair and becoming pregnant.  Gil is also let go from his position and together they move to what is called “The Swimming Pavilion” – property in the country that Gil inherited that used to be old change rooms and has been turned into a house.  Here Gil takes up full-time writing and Ingrid settles in to become a mother and housewife.

After Ingrid finishes writing each letter, she places it into one of the thousands of books that fill their home. I thought the author utilized an interesting concept – after Ingrid signed each letter, she wrote what book she was placing the letter in.  I started to see a pattern in that the book she picked had something to do with the subject that she was writing about.  There were times when I had never heard of the book she listed so I would have to look it up to see if I could figure out what the connection was to the story.

While Ingrid and Gil have another child, Flora, Ingrid finds herself disconnected to both of her daughters. She felt that she never formed any bond with them right from the time that they were in her womb.  Nan, the oldest daughter, is very self sufficient while Flora requires a lot of attention and while close to her mother, constantly craves her father’s attention, which at times is difficult to get as he disappears for months at a time.

Once Ingrid has completed her last letter, she disappears.  The police rule it as either an accidental drowning or a suicide by drowning.  Nan is 15 years old at the time of Ingrid’s disappearance and becomes Flora’s surrogate mother so while they are sisters, there is a definite dynamic of mother/daughter relationship happening at the same time.  Because Nan was older she saw and understood more of the reality of her parent’s marriage and had no doubts that her mother was dead, while Flora has never believed that her mother drowned and thought that Ingrid just left them.  When she returns home to help Nan care for their father, she starts obsessing about what happened to Ingrid.

There are many references in this book that bookworms will love. First of all, Gil is an author who has accumulated thousands of books in his home.  He spends a lot of time at the local used bookstore where he adopts many books to join the ones already at home and Flora is dating a man who works in a bookstore.  When he meets Gil, they have an instant connection due to their love of Flora and books.

I am rating this book on Goodreads as 4.5 out of 5 stars. While I had been looking forward to reading this book I have to admit I was surprised at how much depth there is to this novel and how much I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to Anansi Press for allowing me to review this book prior to publication.



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