Author: Clare Fuller

Publisher: Tin House Books

ISBN: 9781941040515

The four main characters in the cast of Clair Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons are Gil Coleman, the famous author of a best-selling and notorious novel; his younger, Norwegian wife Ingrid; and their daughters Nan and Flora. Supporting cast members include Louise, Ingrid's best friend in university; Jonathan, Gil's best friend, a travel writer; and Richard, Flora's boyfriend. Most of the action is set on a small island off the Dorset coast (actually the Isle of Purbeck), and the book covered is 1976 to the present.

Fuller's structure is interesting. After a brief present-day scene in which Gil, now in his 70s and for reasons that become clear in the course of the novel, falls off a sea-side promenade into the rocks below and ends up in the hospital, the rest of the book alternates between Flora's close third-person point of view and letters Ingrid writes to Gil in June 1992, the month before she disappears. Suicide? There's no note. (She hides the letters in the books with marginalia Gil collects.) Abandonment? Neither we nor the characters never know, which is fine. What's important is what drove her to swim to her death or simply walk away from her husband and daughters and the effect that has had—and continues to have—on them.

Flora hastens to the island followed by Richard and Nan. Tension between the sisters. Nan resents that she had to become in effect nine-year-old Flora when she was only fifteen. Flora is Daddy's Girl; Gil can do no wrong. Richard is impressed that he's able to have sex with a famous author's daughter.

The heart of the novel is the un-mailed correspondence Ingrid writes to Gil at 4:00 a.m. when she cannot sleep. They met at university in London. He was twelve years her senior, a charming, attractive man, her writing teacher who said things like. "Secret truths . . . are the lifeblood of a writer. Your memories and your 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." Gil invites shy, unworldly Ingrid to a riotous weekend party at his house on the island—lots of music, dancing, drink, pot, sex. Ingrid, disregarding all advice and a number of events that should have given her second thoughts, begins enjoy unprotected sex with her professor. She becomes pregnant. The university fires him and expels her. 

Ingrid recounts their life together: Nan's birth, a miscarriage, Gil's betrayals, Flora's birth, and more. They scrape by on the island, literally watching the pennies until Gil writes A Man of Pleasure, a book so erotic they do not allow a copy in the house. Nevertheless or because it is so pornographic, it becomes a best-seller and the money and attention pour in—and give Gil new opportunities to fuck script girls and production assistants. Gil is, in large ways and small, a shit.

Ingrid feels helpless, a woman without education or skills, living a tiny life on a tiny island. Flora is not the easiest child (the jam has to be spread exactly to the edge of the toast). Nan is trying to be the Model Child and keep her parents happy. It apparently never occurs to Ingrid that, given the quality of the letters she writes and other significant moments in the book, that she might be a writer herself rather than simply abandon the family. It would not improve her relationship with Mr. Can't-Keep-It-In-His-Pants, but by her last letter she's acknowledged to herself she has no—and may never have had a—loving relationship with him anyway. (But if Ingrid becomes a writer, it would be another book, and my observation indicates how much I believe and am invested in the characters.)

Swimming Lessons is wonderfully well-written.We can see (or infer) why characters do things they themselves don't understand. It illustrates how we justify ourselves to ourselves. One might complain that none of the characters are sympathetic; I would disagree (and why do characters in fiction have to be sympathetic anyway). I do think Fuller tends to pile on at the end of the book, but I also agree the situation demands it. And a two-page envoi leaves the reader (this reader) cheered.