Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

It’s hard not to compare books by the same author. I was a little nervous going into Swimming Lessons, because I liked Our Endless Numbered Days so much. I couldn’t help but wonder how she was going to top it. Or at least equal it. Well, she did. The stories are very different, but the compelling nature of her writing is the same.

Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.

30304221Ingrid 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. –[Goodreads] 

Chapters alternate between Ingrid’s letters about her marriage and the present day narration of Flora and Nan keeping watch by their father’s death bed. This structure allows the slow release of knowledge over time of both Ingrid’s life and the impact of Ingrid’s disappearance on her family.

The story of the marriage was the most compelling part of the book, for me. It revealed a hard, painful truth of a marriage based on lies and deceit. It made me angry and full of regret for Ingrid. I felt her deep sense of loss of the life she had hoped to have. I sped along, hoping the letters would eventually reveal to me the mystery of what happened in the end.

I thought it was clever the way Ingrid hid her letters in books with titles that suited the content of the letters. I also enjoyed Gil’s “hobby” of buying used books that contained items inside, or interesting marginalia. His books are piled up all over the house – imagine the hours of exploration! Unfortunately, that’s the only thing I like about Gil. Gil, as a person, is an egotistical sleazeball. It’s a wonder Ingrid held out as long as she did.

Another interesting topic this book considers is the nature of motherhood. Ingrid struggles in her role as a mother, and I believe she feels her ‘mistakes’ even more acutely knowing that she is not as ‘in tune’ with her children as she believes she should be. Does her crumbling marriage play a part in this? Or the fact that she is often isolated with her children for long stretches at a time? Or maybe motherhood just doesn’t come as naturally to her as it does to others. We can’t know for sure, but it’s inevitable that she will be judged by her actions as a mother… differently than a father would.

Flora would have liked to ask her parents why the words ‘to father’ have such a different meaning from the words ‘to mother’.

Further Reading:

My review of Claire Fuller’s debut Our Endless Numbered Days

Blogger reviews of Swimming Lessons at Rosemary and Reading Glasses, Literary Hoarders, and Novels and NonFiction. (If I’ve missed any, feel free to leave a link in the comments!)

More reviews listed on Claire Fuller’s website.

*Thanks to House of Anansi for providing me with a copy of this book for review!




47 thoughts on “Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

    • Naomi says:

      Eek. A tough question. I’ve been asking myself this very thing since reading the book. I love books about survival and isolation, which is one of the reasons I loved her first book, but I think this one has more layers. I know I haven’t really answered you question, have I? 🙂

  1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    Great review. I am looking forward to reading this book as well. Mainly because of all the praise that I have heard for Fykker’s debut Our Endless numbered days (have not read). Hopefully Swimming Lessons is a good start into her writing as well

  2. susanosborne55 says:

    I shared your worries about how Fuller would manage to follow Our Endless Numbered Days, Naomi, but she pulled it off beautifully with Swimming Lessons. ‘Egotistical sleazeball’ nails Gil nicely!

  3. FictionFan says:

    I was all ready to sympathise with Gil from the blurb, but I’d kinda gone off him by the end of the review! This sounds like it should be an entry in your Literary Wives series…

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    I haven’t read either of Fuller’s books but would really like to. I placed a library hold on this one. I have a special love for books that incorporate letters, whether they’re all-out epistolary novels or not.

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, I think you’d like this one then. And her clever way of hiding them is fun, too! (Although, I have to admit that I found it frustrating that someone would be sitting right next to one of the books I knew her letter was in, but wouldn’t open it up!)

  5. Emily J. says:

    This sounds like it should be one of our “wives” books, and the theme on motherhood made me think we should read “motherhood” books! Nice review. I still need to read Fuller’s work.

    • Cecilia says:

      I was thinking the same thing recently, Emily! I have been very interested in books on mother-daughter relationships in particular. Motherhood would make a very rich topic.

  6. sarahsbookshelvesblog says:

    Yay – I’m so glad you loved this one – I’m planning to read it soon and have been nervous for the same reasons you were. And the themes of marriage and motherhood are 100% in my wheelhouse right now.

  7. madamebibilophile says:

    Sounds an intriguing premise – I like the idea of all the hidden letters. I also really rated Our Endless Numbered Days so I have great hopes for this – it’s reassuring to hear you think she’s kept her high standard!

  8. Read Diverse Books says:

    This book was featured Book Of The Month, a book subscription service in the U.S.! It sounded really interesting.
    I always get excited when I go to a used bookstore/booksale and find books with notes or things in the pages! haha, Especially when the notes are about the story.

    • Naomi says:

      I love finding things inside books, too. Even grocery lists and receipts! Sometimes I find these things in library books, as well. Once I found a student’s test, and wondered if I should try to get it back to her.

  9. buriedinprint says:

    Ohhhh, I had no idea about the premise behind the novel and was a little hmmm about it: now I’m intrigued for sure. Yesterday I was pawing at a copy of Ann Patchett’s memoir, the one with Happy Marriage in the title, and I wish I’d borrowed it after all, as it seems like a great companion for this one!

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, I want to read that Ann Patchett book, too. You’ll have to get it next time you go back! (Not that that will help *me*, but, you know…)

  10. Cecilia says:

    This is one of the new books I’m most excited about! I’m so glad you liked it, and I didn’t know that she had another one before this. Good to know!

    • Naomi says:

      The first book has the survival stuff in it (which I know you also like!), but the second one has marriage and motherhood. It’s a tough call!

  11. Grab the Lapels says:

    Oooooh, that last quote, to father vs. to mother, is a really good one. I have never thought of it that way. Also, I hate the way “mothering” is used in a demeaning way, like “quit mothering me,” but you never hear “quit fathering me.” Dammit, patriarchy!

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