Lessons in Selfishness
Author: Claire Fuller
Ingrid had everything going for her. She was doing well in college, an ardent feminist who saw a future filled with possibilities and freeness. But then she fell for Gil, her professor, a man who loved books and the stories revealed in the margins by doodling students and bored readers. When her romance turned serious and she became pregnant, she did the responsible thing, the thing a woman in love would do. She left college. She married Gil. She settled down. She settled.
Despite all the warnings about Gil, she didn’t believe that he was still the wild man he once was, the man with a harem of mistresses, the man with secrets, the irresponsible man, the man who valued his writing above all else. But time and marriage proved her wrong. Gil has not changed. She bore his child. She lived her life, alone and burdened, she watched her dreams dissolve. And all the while, Gil locked himself away in his room with his writing. All Ingrid had was her swimming, her moments in the sea, and her regrets. One at a time, she wrote Gil notes, hiding them in his books, tucked between pages. Snippets of their life together, of her broken heart and trust. And then one day, she disappeared. Lost at sea. Dead, they say. But is she? Did she have a fatal swim one day or did she finally leave?
Gil is now an old man, dying. His once grand house is filled with toppling books. He thinks he saw Ingrid, right before a bad fall, and his two daughters have converged on him to ease his dying days. One daughter, the elder, is practical. The other, Flora, never recovered from her mother’s abandonment, from her own secret insight into that final day. As Swimming Lessons progresses, Flora spends her final days with Gil wandering, hurting, pulling back from yet another of her own relationships. Interspersed among her pain – a child whose mother left – we start to read through Nora’s notes, her bittersweet irony hidden between the pages of so many old books, a testament unknown to Gil.
Swimming Lessons is a story of young love gone bad, one of betrayal and selfishness and desire. None of the characters are likable, including Ingrid, because they are all lost in their own stories, their own selfishness. Together, they create and sustain a circle of pain, occasionally diluted by their own anger or guilt. They grow, but it’s impossible to say that they really mature. They are all constrained by their own grief, the unanswered needs they have in one another, and the way they inevitably choose to fail one another.
Gil is the main monster here, a man acclaimed for his authorial brilliance, for his scandalous, sexual novel that was his first and last blockbuster hit. But ultimately, he is a philanderer, a person with no seriousness and a limited capability to care for and about others. In his old age, we are finally starting to see some regrets, but the depth of those emotions is merely hinted at. Perhaps Gil understands what he did and is truly sorry. Perhaps he is senile and frightened. He never does, after all, find all the letters. But he knows what he did. That much is clear.
Flora is a younger version of her father, burning through men, but pushing aside any serious relationships or warmth. This is, supposedly, because of her mother’s abandonment, but that too is an altogether too simple reason. Flora’s family problems, her idealized father’s imperfections, and her mother’s secrets have more of an impact than what is initially suspected, and even Flora doesn’t understand all of her own emotions and exactly what they mean. She was too young to understand what she saw as a child, and she is unwilling to listen to narratives that undermine her love for her father.
These sequences are interesting enough, if a bit overdrawn, but where the book shines is in Ingrid’s messages. These messages are short, but powerful, not only in what they say, but in what they do not say, in the pain they intimate. Ingrid tells a stark story, one of young love blindly entered and horrifically ruined. It’s well done and dramatic, this realistic trap that Ingrid cannot escape.
We do, however, eventually, lose empathy for Ingrid. While Gil is clearly the selfish partner, a man who sees only his own worth and everyone else is there to entertain him, Ingrid is compelled by her own self-centered nature. She blames her infant and later toddler children for her husband’s cruelty and her stagnant life as a mother. It’s the usual modern narrative: children destroy everything good in a woman’s life, eradicating her chances for fulfillment and happiness by merely being alive and in need of care. This is where the narrative loses its power and where we start to suspect that yeah, they all deserve exactly what they get.
As the story goes on, Ingrid gets pregnant again, and in a fit of anger at her worthless husband and hatred of her two existing children, she gets a secret abortion. Later it is revealed that she did indeed abandon her young children, because who cares about them anyway?
**End Spoiler Alert**
Overall, Swimming Lessons is a well written, engaging story about a group of selfish people, all of whom hurt one another by following their own dreams to the exclusion and detriment of the people they are supposed to love. The story is mostly about Gil and Ingrid, and while the adult children are now in the narrative, they fail to capture the focus. It’s an engaging, if bitter read, one that stands out as a warning about putting yourself above those you love, a warning that sacrificing everything for dreams causes more destruction than happiness, and finally a warning about the effects of selfish and bad parenting on future generations. Recommended, even though all the characters are ultimately hateful.
– Frances Carden
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