Skip to main content

Florence Adler Swims Forever

Review

Florence Adler Swims Forever

Set on the Atlantic City boardwalk and told from the perspectives of several members of a tight-knit Jewish family, FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER is an engrossing, heartfelt debut.

The year is 1934, and Florence Adler, bolstered by her family’s support, is in training to swim the English Channel. The Adlers own a small business that allows them to spend the off-season in their beachfront home and cluster together in a small apartment above their bakery during the summer so that they can rent their house to tourists. The proximity to the beach has gifted Florence with a deep love of swimming, but it also has brought her family closer to Stuart, the young heir to a booming Atlantic City hotel who has sworn away his inheritance to coach a girls’ swimming team --- and fall in love with Florence.

The summer is off to a bit of an unusual start for the Adlers. Florence is preparing to leave for training in France; her sister, Fannie, is on bed rest in the hospital, awaiting her third baby after the dreadful loss of her second; Fannie’s daughter, Gussie, is living with her grandparents while her father, Isaac, sorts his life out; and the family is hosting Anna, a German girl whom their patriarch, Joseph, has rescued from Nazi-torn Europe.

"...a perfect generational saga that explores the depths of the risks we are willing to take to protect those we love.... [Beanland's] prose is tender and frank, but it is her keen eye for emotional nuance that makes the book soar."

And then the unthinkable happens. One sunny summer day, Florence heads out to sea for a swim and drowns. What makes the tragedy worse is that there was no good reason for it; she likely suffered a cramp or hit a swift undercurrent. All her family knows is that their baby, the light of their lives, is gone. Fearing another tragic loss, Florence and Fannie’s mother, Esther, decides that they all must keep the news from Fannie, who may not be able to bear the loss of her sister and her risky pregnancy. And so the Adler cohort --- Joseph, Esther, Isaac, Gussie, Anna and Stuart --- begin a summer of lies that starts to unravel long-held secrets and discontents.

Judaism plays a big role in the book's plot. Esther immediately calls upon the Jewish community to help cover up Florence’s death, while at the same time shirking several Jewish traditions in order to keep the news quiet, causing a bit of discord in the family and the community. But what Esther doesn’t know is that Florence and Fannie argued just before Florence’s death, and Fannie believes that the entire family has taken Florence’s side. Why else would they limit their visits and turn so glum when she brings up her sister? In a painful yet endearing moment, Stuart and Anna enlist Gussie to join the super-secret “Florence Adler Swims Forever Society,” a union with one shared goal: to make sure that Fannie doesn’t learn the truth about her sister’s death until she delivers a healthy baby.

As June turns to July, and the date of Florence’s would-be departure nears and passes, the Adler family begins to unravel. Esther, mourning the loss of her daughter, can no longer bear Anna’s presence in their home --- especially since Joseph has yet to supply a suitable explanation for his interest in her and her family. Anna, terrified for her parents living under Nazi rule, starts to take swimming lessons with Stuart as a way to insert some control into her life. And Isaac, facing the potential birth of another child, is feeling stifled by his life and makes some questionable investments that put not only his marriage but also the Adler family and even his estranged father at risk. Through it all, it is poor seven-year-old Gussie who holds the biggest secrets of all: her parents’ unhappiness, her love for Stuart, and the blossoming affection between Stuart and Anna.

The book is divided into three parts, each taking place over the course of a month. Within each part, we are given the perspectives of six different characters. Although this ultimately proves to be a very interesting way to tell the story, I found it difficult to attach to any one character when I began reading. For those who struggle with multiple perspectives, I urge you to read on anyway --- the Adler family and their friends are close-knit enough to keep every character in the forefront, and the structure of the novel allows each storyline to live on its own while furthering the plot as a whole.

FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER is a perfect generational saga that explores the depths of the risks we are willing to take to protect those we love. The Adlers are complicated, and their decision to protect Fannie may seem unbelievable, but Beanland renders them so beautifully that she manages to pack the full breadth of human emotion into nearly every scene. Her prose is tender and frank, but it is her keen eye for emotional nuance that makes the book soar. It is not easy to begin a novel with such a gripping tragedy and convince your readers to sit with their heartache as they read on, but Beanland writes with such grace and compassion that the book is instantly engrossing, even for those who prefer “happy” stories.

Perfect for readers of AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING, THE BOSTON GIRL and WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER announces the arrival of a tremendous new talent and is sure to top many “Best Of” lists in a year that needs more heartfelt, unforgettable fiction.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 17, 2020

Florence Adler Swims Forever
by Rachel Beanland

  • Publication Date: July 7, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982132469
  • ISBN-13: 9781982132460