'Swimming Lessons' stirs heavy questions within readers
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February 7, 2017
Tin House Books
Claire Fuller’s second novel, “Swimming Lessons,” begins with famous author Gil Coleman seeing his dead wife outside a bookstore. He follows her until she disappears, leaving him to wonder if it was actually her, or just a hallucination due to his age and failing health. Either way, Gil spends the rest of the book trying to catch up to her.
Ingrid had gone missing twelve years earlier, when her daughters, Flora and Nan, were still children. After swimming in the lake near their house everyday for years, Ingrid allegedly drowned one day. They never found her body.
After Gil takes a fall, he tells his daughters that he’s seen their mother. The older, more sensible Nan, now working as a nurse, doesn’t pay him any mind. But the rambunctious and bohemian younger daughter Flora seems to have always held onto the hope that her mother was alive. From the start, Gil and Flora have an optimistic hope regarding her mother’s disappearance that Nan does not. Following this hope, Flora and Nan move back into their father’s house to take care of him.
When Gil returns from that fateful day at the bookstore, the novel shifts form from the third person perspective of he and Flora’s narratives, to the epistolary first person narrative of Ingrid. Before disappearing, Ingrid hid letters to her husband in the multitudes of books that line the house like wallpaper. Ingrid adds insight to her letters through the books she chooses to hide them, whether it’s “The Great Gatsby” or “The Swimming Pool-Library.” It’s in the letters that the reader gets to know Ingrid, who despite her absence, is the most interesting and developed character of the book.
The different sections are marked not only by the forms, but also by the personalities of the characters. Flora’s chapters ground us in the present, but in her dreamy, open version of the present. In her endless belief that her mother could be alive, Flora epitomizes the danger of hope. For twelve years, she’s been tied to a ghost, an intangible mother figure constantly slipping away. Flora’s elusive hold on the reality felt by others manifests in her synesthesia, her ability to smell color.
The novel relies on Ingrid’s accounts of the past through her letters. By reading her urgent but ancient words, Ingrid comes alive to both the reader and to Gil. The letters follow a young Ingrid through her fall from grace into love with Gil, her professor at the time. We meet Gil, the real Gil, not the decrepit Gil of the present, who lectures fiercely and shares his beliefs about what it means to be a writer.
During one of their classes, Gil tells Ingrid and her peers: “Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind.”
By weaving reader-response theory into a novel, Fuller forces the reader to examine how they’re interacting with the text, the character and the setting while they read. Through Gil, the impetus is placed upon the reader to truly interact, engage and find the nuance in each character and every choice made. As the letters and their relationship progresses, children are reluctantly born and things settle, and we begin to understand why Ingrid might have left, like Flora thinks.
In her letters, Ingrid defies all expectations and becomes a nuanced, complex woman. Ingrid preemptively begins her adult life with Gil, who is twenty years older than she is, marrying at twenty-one and starting her family. Fuller makes it incredibly easy to feel all of Ingrid’s aches — her dissatisfaction with her life, her hardships and displeasure with motherhood. Ingrid holds her family together, even in her absence, through the secrets and the conditional love she leaves in her wake.
Secrets and mystery, even more than the dysfunction of the family, prove to be the backbone of “Swimming Lessons.” The impulsive and selfish actions of the characters sometimes seem odd, until the value system of the world is recognized. In “Swimming Lessons,” to have a secret or to have an experience to yourself, is to have power. It is to have a story. Gil himself at one point explains the prioritization that drives the novel.
“Secret truths ... are the lifeblood of a writer,” Gil says. “Your memories and your own secrets. Forget plot, character, structure; if you’re going to call yourself a writer, you need to stick your hand in the mire up to the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder and drag out your darkest, most private truth.”