1934, anti-Semitism, at-risk pregnancy, book review, drowning, emotional dishonesty, family drama, full characters, historical fiction, keeping secrets, literary fiction, multiple narrators, New Jersey, Rachel Beanland, resentments
Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever, by Rachel Beanland
S&S, 2020. 304 pp. $26
In June 1934, twenty-year-old Florence Adler of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is training to swim the English Channel. But one day, during a routine practice, she drowns within sight of the shore. Even with no other disturbances, such an accident would be heartbreaking. But of course there’s more—and for that reason, or despite it, her family makes an unusual decision, which adds a sharp edge to the story.
Since Florence’s older sister, Fannie, is on forced hospital bed rest in her seventh month of pregnancy—and since Fannie lost a previous child, born prematurely—the Adlers choose to keep her ignorant of the death until after she gives birth. They go to great lengths, suppressing reports in the press, swearing beach lifeguards and hospital nurses to secrecy, and hounding the youngest Adler, seven-year-old Augusta (Gussie), to keep her mouth shut.
From this elegant premise comes a gripping family drama about life and death, sacrifice and dreams, and coming to terms with limitations. I like novels that pack a punch with only a few moving parts, and Florence Adler is one. The deceptively simple idea, withholding news about a death, throws this already fractured family into chaos, exposing layer after layer of their loyalties and resentments, not all of them pretty.
Beanland’s refusal to rescue her characters is one of the pleasures found here. Nobody’s too good; everyone’s got weaknesses and obligations from which they hide. Even the most decent character freezes up and refuses to speak his heart or act when he should. Young Gussie, though she has her charms, can behave like a brat at times. And the worst of the Adlers, though entitled and dishonest, nevertheless has his moments. This is a rounded, believable cast.
True to an ensemble performance, each of the seven narrates sections of the novel, a technique that tests an author’s mettle. Are the voices distinct? Do the sections overlap too much or too little? Does the narrative stall? I’m glad to say that none of those issues mar Florence Adler, though I prefer some voices to others.
Much tension derives from keeping sequestered, bed-ridden Fannie in the dark. How cruel, I think, an idea of dubious merit that only controlling parents (my least favorite kind) could have dreamed up. But I believe these parents implicitly. They reason that Fannie’s a nervous type; left unspoken, though shown, is how little help or support she gets from her husband, Isaac, the aforementioned entitled and dishonest member of the family.
However, when the family views Fannie as weak, they encourage her to act that way—which serves their purposes, though they don’t recognize this. I like this setup very much, which feels absolutely true to life.
But that’s not the only paradox for Fannie, who, having lost her last child, feels that bringing this one to term is a make-or-break judgment on her, an unfair burden that raises the stakes. But what else has she known? Furthermore, her high blood pressure alarms her doctor, a concern that makes the expectant mother even more anxious. Yet, as he’s aware, a key source of worry is that Florence, with whom Fannie has quarreled recently, hasn’t been to see her and never seems available.
A deeper, longer-standing worry, however, is Fannie’s husband. Like most troubles in the Adler family, it’s not to be spoken of:
When Isaac first started taking Fannie out, a million years ago now, he hadn’t had two cents to rub together. He liked to promise her that, once he was a little more established, he’d be able to buy her steak dinners at the Ritz but, in the meantime, she often returned from her dates hungry enough that she had to go straight to the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. She tried to tell him she didn’t need fancy dinners, so long as they were happy, but over time, his promises just grew bigger.
Another problem stressing the family, also not spoken of, is Anna Epstein, daughter of a family friend, whom Joseph Adler, the father, has sponsored on a student visa to get her out of Nazi Germany. Anna’s frantic about her parents, who, despite Joseph’s efforts, can’t get visas—and the major obstacle is American officialdom. They don’t want Jews entering the United States.
I go back and forth on Anna’s voice and character; I’m not sure I understand her arc, and her share of the novel’s resolution feels less credible than the rest. But I like that Beanland has handled Jewish themes and concerns straight on, with knowledge and understanding. And if Anna herself doesn’t always persuade me, her place in the story feels right, as the young woman who happens to be about the age of the late Florence, which is enough to upset a certain character.
Florence Adler Swims Forever is a story that takes risks, from an author who cares to delve past her characters’ surfaces. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.