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FMN Book Club

FMN Book Club | Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Finally time for the FMN Book Club to resume (hurrah!), reviewing Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons and announcing the next read which just FYI, I’m 100 pages in and in love with it….

I have a bit of an annoying habit of reading a bestselling authors second novel… Fullers’ debut ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ is still on my ‘to read’ list and cemented her as a writer of serious lyrical prowess, with the press loving her ability to weave fairytale-like elements into contemporary tales of love, loss and family. Swimming Lessons was no different… The back cover blurb reminded me of Where’d You Go Bernadette, another book I love, so I was immediately intrigued by the concept of a mother going missing and then turning up again decades later. While the tone is totally different from Semple’s Bernadette, Swimming Lessons similarly breaks down what goes on behind the surface and what could make a mother leave her family.

On a surface level, I loved the imagery of the Cornish village and coastline, the ramshackle swimming pavilion they called home and the eccentric, ailing father. Flora’s memories of childhood and Ingrid’s depictions of parties and poverty were kind of spell-binding to me. Fantastical scenes such as the raining mackerel and taking the cockerel out into a rowing boat to search for lost souls at sea, were weird and brilliant all at once. I loved these tiny touches that gave representation to much bigger things like when Flora finally meets her half brother and he agrees ‘maybe it was an omen’ whereas everyone else dismissed her claims of raining fish, you can sense their relationship will be a positive one. I found the way it was written super easy and engaging to flow through, so much so I pretty much devoured the book in a day.  Ingrid’s letters to her husband, outlining the many wrongs he did her over the years were my favourite part, so much so I almost forgot at times about the present day saga. It’s a tale as old as time; girl meets older man, falls in love, gives up her dreams despite everyone telling her not to, he treats her badly and a life full of regret and resentment follows. And yet to me, it was no less engaging. As you can tell from my affection for Fates & Furies and other greats like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, I love novels that pick apart the outside appearance of relationships, both to outsiders and to each other. Although of course here, we never got to hear Gil’s side of things here, his only representation came through Flora’s benevolent view of him. You couldn’t help but know the author was on Ingrid’s side in this one….

It was kind of heart-breaking seeing Flora’s devotion to her father mirrored with the depiction of him by her mother’s long lost letters, made even more tragic by his subsequent obsession with hoarding old books in an attempt to find all his wife’s letters in a bid to piece together the clues for what happened to her. The fire really shocked me and made me viciously angry at the selfishness of Flora’s father once again. But you couldn’t help but pity him either; his desperation to make sure his daughters never read the letters his late (?) wife wrote and desire to never be a burden drove him to such extreme measures. The swimming pavilion had come to feel sentimental to me by that point, just like the dress of her mother’s Flora wouldn’t let go of, it was kind of heart-breaking seeing all those memories go up in flames.

I had mixed views about the epilogue. To me, I somehow would have preferred a mystery as to whether Ingrid was alive or not. But then, is that even her in the epilogue? Or is it Flora? Or just Ingrid years ago? I still can’t decide if I thought she was alive or dead…But I think that’s only half the story really. The real story is the story behind why she even wanted to disappear/take her last ever swim. What did you guys make of it? Did you like Ingrid and Flora? Do you think it was Ingrid returning at the end? Let me know all your thoughts, big and small…. As always, that’s the whole point of this book club so take five minutes and get those thoughts down in the comments.

The next read is going to be a good one I reckon…. I’m just getting into The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsay Lee Johnson and loving it. It’s set in the high school of a wealthy San Francisco suburb; think Less Than Zero meets Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s coming of age plus multiple narratives; my two favourite things. Have a good feeling about this one….

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  • Ciara

    This was definitely my least favourite of the book club reads so far.I think partially because I had just read two exceptional books before (Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney & Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeymoon, I think you wold really love both), but also because I found all of the characters either unlikable or one dimensional, they never really develop. I pitied Ingrid, and maybe if she had been further fleshed out I could have cared more about her, but ultimately the way she left her daughters was cruel. I felt that a lot of the book was waiting for something to happen, the letters to have a greater significance, but nothing ever comes and I finished feeling frustrated, like the purpose of the novel hadn’t been realised.
    It was very readable though and I agree with you in regards to the imagery. Fuller has a fantastic way with words and write beautiful prose. But overall the dislikes outweighed the pros for me.

    I am really looking forward to this months book. I’ve actually just finished reading Less Than Zero, so perfect timing.
    I am currently reading The Sport of Kings, am only a quarter of the way through but it is outstanding, and I am already quite confident in saying it is one of my favourite books this year, so if you have time I highly reccomend adding it to your reading list.

    • Emma

      I have Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine on my book pile at the moment – really looking forward to reading it!

      • Ciara

        Oh it is so wonderful. I am envious of you getting to meet Eleanor. Enjoy.

    • Kelly Marie

      totally agree! I felt like I was waiting for something to happen.


  • Emma

    I didn’t pick this one up, but I’m really looking forward to discussing The Most Dangerous Place on Earth with you – I really loved it.

    Other reads I have lined up that you may enjoy are The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker, Marlena by Julie Buntin, Oola by Brittany Newell and The Perennials by Mandy Berman. I also just finished The Strays by Emily Bitto which was amazing.

    • Little Miss Notting Hill

      I’m reading Marlena now Emma, nearly finished it actually, and I am realllly enjoying it – Julie’s writing is incredibly descriptive and so well observed. Enjoy! x

  • Great post,thanks!

  • Ginny Woods

    Hi, I can’t seem to get The Most Dangerous Place on Earth until 24 August in the UK.

  • Alex

    Hi, Lucy!
    This is my first FMN book club read and I loved it. Like you, I devoured it in about day.
    For me, Ingrid’s story was the most compelling–equal parts 70s nostalgia, romance, and unfulfilled potential. It was fascinating watching Ingrid and Gil’s relationship grow and deteriorate while knowing the eventual outcome. Like you said, we only really got half the story… so Gil’s motivations and thoughts remained obscure.
    The is she/isn’t she alive mystery really drove my interest intiially, but by the end I didn’t really find it important anymore (except wanting Ingrid to come back/be alive for Flora’s sake!) as it became more about the family dynamic and their journey to some kind of closure.
    I can’t wait to read the subsequent FMN book club picks as they are always ones that aren’t really on my radar. Thanks so much (and your blog is very lovely!).
    xx Alex

  • Lj

    One of the most poignant things about the book is the intricacies of a relationship that must exist between a couple but which you don’t fathom or interpret when they’re your parents.

    Ingrid and Gil have a whole history together which Flora will never know and which isn’t hers to know either.

    Whilst I didn’t like Gil, I felt sad for the life and love that he could never quite get right.

    I interpreted the woman at the end to be Flora reassuring the reader that she was ok.

    Great book choice! Xx

  • Sian Hunter

    i really enjoyed swimming lessons. i liked the uncertainty about ingrids disappearance that added a layer of mystery to a story about love and family and how you can never truly know the people you are closest to. i thought it was a really interesting exploration of the relationships between parents and children and showed just how parents are flawed human beings and not just devoted parents. the magical touches of the books and the mackerel were really lovely and not too over the top. i think my favourite parts were ingrids letters though, i really felt for her and I’m glad she escaped somehow…?

    looking forward to starting the most dangerous place on earth, i love a coming of age story. probably because i still feel like I’m coming of age now at 29!

  • Daria

    Hi Lucy! First of all, I really enjoyed the book. I read it in a couple of days and it was one of those books I found hard to put down, so thank you for the recommendation. I also read Our Endless Numbered days and even though I really liked the story, I think Swimming Lessons is a stronger book. I really liked Ingrid’s character. Just like you, I enjoy the books on dysfunctional relationships so reading her part of the story was fantastic. Just days before picking up the book, I read an article about women who regretted having had kids. I mean, they loved their children and gave them everything but having a choice to go back, they wouldn’t have had them. I thought it was an interesting view of a topic that is still very controversial and reading the book, it made me think of Ingrid as one of those women. A young and idealistic woman full of dreams and plans who suddenly found herself living a life she did not want and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but her own really. So I tried to understand where she was coming from. I know many people would think she was cruel and irresponsible leaving her daughters like that but I tried putting myself in her shoes (and her head) and I found myself thinking she wouldn’t kill herself but rather just go away and live the life she somehow felt robbed of and leaving the letters as a final punishment to her husband. And I think she loved her daughters but felt no connection to them and probably felt they would be better off without her. Not that it’s a justification of anything… I had mixed feelings about all other characters, but I did think they were depicted in a very real way, which is something I appreciate in a book. Anyway, thanks for the book club as usual. I can’t wait to pick up the next book from the library. :)

  • Daria

    The Most dangerous Place is on loan at my local library so I picked up Freedom today. As for books on relationships, I liked The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. it’s not a novel, but I found some opinions to be quite interesting. :)

  • omg i have to read this one, thanks for the recommendation!

  • You have such an incredible writing voice! Both books are going on my reading list asap <3


  • Laura Munday

    Hi Lucy,

    I missed out on The Handmaid’s Tale and didn’t fancy the other books in the book club as I am a bit sick of American-centred stories so when you said that Swimming Lessons is more English I decided to join in and read it. Like you I found Ingrid’s letters more compelling, and felt that they seemed to create more of a real story and characters than the actual novel part of the story. Although I liked Flora I felt that she didn’t come off as completely believable as a 22 year-old or whatever age she was meant to be. The same with her sister Nan; when descriptions of their clothes came in or they spoke, it made me think that the author must be much older than them and hadn’t quite got it right. And maybe it was just me but another criticism is how it wasn’t completely clear to me when Ingrid went missing, how old the girls were at the time and how long it had been since then. From what I gathered the book was set earlier than the present day by a few years but as I read the book in bits and pieces over a few weeks I remember feeling a little confused as to when events were supposed to have happened.

    That said, I did really enjoy the book. I found the characters of Ingrid and Gil very interesting and real, and had clear pictures of them in my mind. (I was watching ‘The Affair’ around the same time though so maybe that helped me visualise the obsessive writer, the tranquil setting and the woman in summery dresses being made to feel like an accessory). I liked the way that Ingrid was absent in the present day but was often the main topic of conversation, while her letters provided all the answers, and that in her letters to Gil, he was the main topic of conversation but never got to reply or give his side. However, details like him dedicating the book to Louise make me think that he was as cruel as Ingrid described him, if not more, which then contrasted with the frail old man he had become.

    I don’t really have any suggestion for specific books as I don’t normally read new ones but if you’re not sure what book to have next then how about one set in another country or a translated book?

    Laura xxx