I really enjoyed Swimming Lessons. It’s about Ingrid, a 20 year old English student who becomes the wife of her University tutor, Gil, after he decides she would make good wife and mother material. I listened to the audio book version.
We get the story firstly via Flora, one of Ingrid and Gil’s daughters. She is called to Gil’s home, by her sister Nan, because he has had a fall at the seaside and is in hospital. Gil at this point is portrayed as elderly and not well at all. Though given the timeline of the story he must only be in his mid 60s to 70 maybe. We find out that Ingrid disappeared when Flora was 11. We don’t know if she ran away, drowned when swimming (as her clothes on the beach suggest), or if she ended her own life.
We get Ingrid’s story from letters she wrote to Gil, before her disappearance, that she hid in the books they have taking over their home – there are thousands of books piled all over the house. Here she describes how they met, and their early years together. She describes life at that time and we get how she feels before she disappears. She hides these letters in the books that are taking over the house. I loved that each letter she wrote was hidden in a book with a title that was relevant to that part of the story. Will anyone ever find the letters?
Essentially Gil is a life wrecking womaniser. He is 40 when he seduces Ingrid and he treats her terribly from day 1. It was interesting to get all these different versions of Gil, from exciting, unpredictable University tutor, to frail, broken old man. I had a picture of him in my mind as looking like Bill Nighy and I couldn’t shake it off. I’m not sure if that helped or not!
The relationships between the characters is wonderfully complicated. They all seem like real, complicated, often despicable, human beings. There isn’t any one who shines as being the ‘good’ character. Ingrid is certainly very hard done by, but isn’t beyond making choices that from the reader’s perpective seem terrible. No spoilers here though!
The mystery of what happens/ed to Ingrid makes you want to sail through this story. I loved how the pieces gradually come together and you build up the story until you start getting an idea of Ingrid’s state of mind towards the end of the book.
The full circle of life is explored in Swimming Lessons. We have birth, death, love affairs, friendships, siblings, parents and offspring, it’s all in here. It explores the idea of knowing the truth of a situation versus staying in the dark and having hope. Morality and faithfulness, and the sacrifices often expected from women during marriage and having children are other themes. The central mystery of what happened to Ingrid stays constant throughout the story too. A page-turning look at complicated family relationships.