I couldn’t put it down from the moment I read the first page. The story of a missing anybody is always compelling. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Are they dead or alive? What led to their disappearance? And who is left behind to wonder?
Swimming Lessons is the story of Flora Coleman, a young woman whose mother disappears when she’s eleven. It’s also the story of her mother Ingrid Coleman, as told through letters she has written and hidden in books throughout their house to her famous husband, the writer, Gil Coleman.
Flora returns to her childhood ramshackle seaside home to help care for her ailing father who believes he has seen Ingrid. Flora, herself doesn’t believe her mother is dead and often sees her. You’re never sure whether this is real longing for a mother who simply disappears but is assumed drowned or if in fact, Ingrid, whose life had become isolated and unbearable disappeared herself.
Just as there are no certainties in life, the reader too must decide in the end what happened to Ingrid Coleman.
What makes this book so compelling is the contents of the letters Ingrid writes to Gil, each one revealing to him what she could never say during the course of their tumultuous marriage. In Ingrid’s last letter she instructs Gil on how to care for their two young children. Is it a suicide note or a goodbye of another kind?
That she has reason to leave him is clear. When they first meet in the sixties in London, he is her handsome, flamboyant English instructor almost twenty years her senior, and she is a twenty year old student from Norway. Everything from the very beginning screams, run away, choose life number two and stay free, as her friend Louise warns her but she falls deeply in love and becomes pregnant. And the rest is history. She can’t escape the reality of her life as a somewhat reluctant mother, a husband who is emotionally and physically absent and the numerous heartbreaks along the way. That she lasted as long as she did seems a miracle but the letters describing the heady romance of their early days seems deep enough to last a lifetime and this love, in spite of everything, keeps her hanging on. If only he had loved her as she had loved him. And when she does think of leaving, the reality of being a young woman with no education stop her at the front door. How could she manage?
In the end Flora, her youngest daughter has to decide if she can let her mother live or if she has to put her to rest. It’s how we square the circle and find peace in the end and each one including Gil finds it their own way.
I loved this book. It was beautifully written, giving the reader an incredible sense of place and time and a snapshot of a young woman who’s heart was broken by love.