Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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Synopsis: 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.

Author: Claire Fuller

Title: Swimming Lessons

Publisher: Penguin

Date: 2017

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Having read Our Endless Numbered Days and being intrigued by Fuller’s writing style, I wanted to read Swimming Lessons. Like her previous book, Swimming Lessons is all about the characters and their perceptions of reality and, more importantly, each other. Naivety, innocence and blind devotion can conceal the truth, as the characters discover throughout the novel.

Swimming Lessons has two narrations: letters from Ingrid to her husband, detailing the finer points of their marriage (adultery, money problems etc) that he has turned a blind eye to. The second is from their daughter, Flora, as she realises her father is ill and that her memories of her childhood may not be what they seem.

Fuller has a pleasant writing style: her books are easy to get swept up in even if you do not connect on an emotional level with the characters. It’s easy to spend an afternoon curled up with Swimming Lessons, not necessarily because it is gripping, but because it is, for the most part, a gentle read that carries you along.

Something about the two of us together has always made people look: our bodies suit each other, look right together. I remember thinking that the air and then the water on every part of my body was like a lover: a new, fresh, cold lover.

I did, however, find it difficult to empathise with the characters. Flora is naïve; she worships her father and struggles to connect the man she idolises with the true man – one who wasn’t there for the family and cheated on her mother multiple times. Her attitude and approach to life is childlike despite her being an adult. She’s a nice girl, but she’s not a complex or a deep one.

In a way, she takes after her mother. Seduced by her university professor, Ingrid marries young after realising she is pregnant. But motherhood is not all it is cracked up to be and Ingrid struggles with a new baby. Her husband only appears to want children rather than focusing on her and has multiple flings along the way. Ingrid is angry, hurt and betrayed and talks about leaving. But she never acts, only continues to struggle to find her place. I wanted her to do more.

There is a mystery surrounding Ingrid’s disappearance. The letters she writes started to lead me towards a potential suicide – she was unhappy enough. But the last two pages of the book threw that into the air; it’s not clear who the character is. Although Ingrid didn’t connect with her children to a great extent, her letters revealed she does love them and it doesn’t feel like she would leave without at least telling them. It was unsatisfying to never know what the conclusion was.

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The pace is gentle; the present narration takes place over a week while Ingrid’s letters span several years. The focus of the novel is on character relationships and perceptions and it’s interesting to see how Flora starts to come to terms with reality. There is a meandering feel to the plot due to the two timelines, but I like Fuller’s writing and it is easy to read.

Swimming Lessons could have had more depth and meaning to the plot and characters. Overall, however, a fairly decent read.

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