Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
This book was read within a day. There is so much within this novel that you could talk about but for this post, I’d like to focus one of the overwhelming themes of truth and imagination, what is real and what has been made up? This is a question that is brought up a lot when the characters and the readers wonder what really happened to Ingrid, a woman who disappears one day, leaving behind a complicated history with her husband and two children. But the more we read, the more we see that this is not, in fact, the question that matters.
This story is told primarily through letters Ingrid has written for her husband, intercepted with chapters from the viewpoint of her youngest daughter, Flora. The letters are Ingrid’s retelling of her marriage with Gil, while Flora’s chapters focus on the present, with a now dying Gil. Through Ingrid’s letters, we see a woman struggling with the infidelities of her husband and the burdens of unwanted motherhood. With Flora, the readers are presented with a young woman still grappling with the disappearance of her mother and who is having a hard time letting go.
There is tension between truth and imagination throughout the novel. We witness how Gil, once all about the imagination, begins to lean more towards reality. There is Flora, too, who seems to be on a journey of learning truths about her parents. But even as the characters uncover certain truths, these truths are still not enough to fully answer the doubts they hold. It becomes their, and our, duty to fill in the blanks with our imagination.
Though the book centers around the disappearance of Ingrid, it’s not really what happened to her that is the important question being asked. Instead, it’s the varying perceptions the characters have about her fate that matters.
Within the book, we are introduced to characters who are not the most reliable sources of information. There is Gil, who is painted as a liar in Ingrid’s letters, and who, in the present, seems to misremember things said and done. We also have Flora, who is convinced her mother is still alive, and who was oblivious (whether willfully or not) to her father’s philandering ways growing up. Every character seems to have their own version of what happened to Ingrid.
Young Gil, we learn through the letters, believed that when it came to writing, it was not what the author was trying to say with their work that was relevant but what the reader took away from that work. It’s the reader’s understanding of the work that holds significance. As Gil says:
Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important.
Indeed, with the story of Ingrid’s marriage and her disappearance, it’s the different perspectives of her daughters and husband that come into play. And with the ambiguous ending, it becomes ours, the readers’, job to come up with our own interpretation, our take away of what the epilogue means to us.