Review of Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller

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It’s the 1970s. Student has affair with her creative writing teacher. Happened all the time. Gets pregnant. Happened. Has baby. Happened sometimes. Teacher marries student. Happened somewhat often. Teacher gets sacked by dean. Happened never. Without reflection or effort of recall, I can think of six such instances amongst senior members of my department whilst I was still an assistant professor – resulting in four marriages, four children (one set of twins), and zero firings, tho’ not too long afterwards the father of twins dropped dead of a heart attack on the day of the department Christmas party. His “celebration of life” service @ the Unitarian Church is still one of my treasured memories, esp. when the ‘mourners’ were invited to share their recollections. The ex disappointed us by remaining silent. In Swimming Lessons we hear a lot from the wife, a Norwegian named Ingrid, tho’ rather than divorcing her sleazy creative writing husband, she apparently drowned instead. (There is the alternative possibility that she may be still alive.) The main story takes place in the present, on the Dorset coast near “Hadleigh” (i.e. Bournmouth), apparently Studland beach, where the family of Gil the creative writer inhabit a swimming pavilion absolutely crammed with books. Gil didn’t collect the books to read the texts, but for their marginalia; he’s especially fond of puerile drawings of penises and vulvas. His twenty-something daughter Flora has an equally puerile (puellile?) amusement of drawing innards like the bones and intestines on the naked body of her lover Robert with a permanent felt tip. She has an elder sister Nan who is ten years older and is a nurse and actually has some sense tho’ she’s rather a scold. But the backstory is related by letters to Gil written in the summer of 1992 by Ingrid, basically retelling the history of their relationship, revealing Gil’s infidelities and her difficulties as a mum bringing up two girls with a feckless husband. There is also a revelation that most readers will be expecting. The tricky innovation in Swimming Lessons is that Ingrid’s letters are concealed in the huge collection of books, letters intended to be found later by Gil. The cute part is that the contents of the letter is keyed loosely to the title or subject of the book in which it’s hidden. For example, an account of how she fights off a rapist on the beach is concealed in a copy of Warne’s Adventure Book for Girls. This may strike some readers as clever; I found it silly.

This was a book that I really wanted to like. That the characters were so dislikeable was not a problem, but it was that they weren’t either original or interesting. Gil is the standard sleazy adulterous burnt-out foul-mouthed fictional failure – how many have I seen come through the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City? Flora is the usual precious daughter with a father fixation – no surprise that she responds to his having pancreatic cancer with denial. Robert’s a book-store clerk adoring a famous writer – another stock Iowa City fixture – who doesn’t deserve his fame. Maybe what put me off as well was the setting. Beaches bore me. Tho’ unlike Robert I can actually swim, I regard natation more as a means of saving one’s life if one falls into the water than a recreation. If the setting were used for what God intended it (I once had the good fortune to do Poole Week), I might have liked the story better. Some readers may enjoy Swimming Lessons, but I doubt I’m the only one to find it very tedious

It makes me feel so bad to write such an unenthusiastic review. I loved Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. But that novel had an extremely attractive main character and left the reader with many fascinating speculations and moral and ethical dilemmas. I am so hoping I live long enough with my wits about me to read a sequel someday. Claire Fuller is also a fine blogger, a great Tweeter, introduced me to WordPress, and likes Morris Minors as well. So I promise eagerly to await her next effort, and hope the old magic returns.

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