About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, April 23, 2012

#34: Swimming

Swimming, by Nicola Keegan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

"A spectacular debut about the rise of an Olympic champion -- a novel about competition, obsession, the hunger for victory, and a young girl with an unsinkable spirit struggling to stay afloat in the only way she can.

"When we first meet Pip, the extraordinary heroine of Nicola Keegan's first novel, she is landlocked in a small town in the center of Kansas, literally swimming for her life. Pip is tall and flat and smart and funny and supernaturally buoyant. On land, she has her share of troubles: an agoraphobic mother, a lost father, a drug-addled sister, and a Catholic education dominated by a group of high-energy nuns. But in the water, Pip is unstoppable. In the water, her suffering and rage are transmuted into grace and speed and beauty.

"Swimming is the story of Pip's journey from a small Midwestern swim team to her first state meet, her brutal professional training, and the final, record-breaking swims that lead to her dizzying ascent to the Olympic podium in Barcelona. It's the story of a girl who discovers, in the loneliness of adolescence, in the family tragedies that threaten to engulf her, the resilience of the human spirit and the spectacular power of her own body."

Opening Lines:
"I'm a problematic infant but everything seems okay to me. I'm sitting in Leonard's arms grabbing at his nose."

My Take:
This was one of those books that left me feeling a bit stupid and lightweight because I didn't enjoy it more than I did. It was OK, but as Ron Charles's Washington Post review points out, 
Swimming remains an unusually interior novel, contained entirely in Pip's discordant head. Even the dialogue is mediated by her voice, rendered only in italics, no quotation marks, sometimes slipping into shorthand and ellipses. This can feel a bit claustrophobic, as though we're missing a lot of what's happening outside her narrow attention. Moscow, Paris, Stanford University and other colorful locales are hard to see in much detail through the scrim of Pip's self-absorption, but if you've spent time around precocious teenagers (or been one), you'll recognize how true this sounds.
Charles' review was a positive, almost laudatory one nonetheless, but for me, the interior nature of the novel was a real roadblock. It was hard to get a real feel for any of the other characters, or even a vivid, objective picture of Pip (nee Philomena) herself. I'm glad I read the book and appreciate Keegan's literary skill, but think there's something I just didn't get here.

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