This is a book about dying and death. This is a remarkably uplifting book. That consummate novelist Laury A. Egan is able to achieve such a balance of emotional response among readers shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I’ve followed her career since her first major publication, Jenny Kidd (2012), but this book indeed surprised—and The Swimmer climbed to the top to become my favorite.
The story draws us into the life of Elizabeth “Bess” Lynch, a psychologist who is in her final days, succumbing to pancreatic cancer, while spending time in solitude on “a spiritual sabbatical” at a post-season Cape Cod cottage where her goal is to get her life together to confront her impending death. How to accept that “my future had been switched from infinite to finite”? Is it too late to divorce her philandering husband? How best to help her son Nathan cope with life after she’s gone? Can she help heal the rift between Nathan and his father? Who will assist her as the cancer worsens and she loses mobility and descends into a fog of necessary painkillers?
The book’s first twist of fate occurs early in the novel when Elizabeth meets Stephen, “a spectacular man,” one of “stunning beauty,” who swims to shore, arriving at the very spot where she was standing, staring off into the peerless blue Atlantic.
Laury’s first-person narrative is devilishly difficult for a reviewer to contend with. It’s not because the plot is complex; the plot twists are few, but each one is so significant, I’m fearful of giving away any one’s of their surprises. After Elizabeth and Stephen meet—and spend a night together—the plot twists roll out. I’m reluctant to follow their route too closely and serve up even one spoiler in this compelling novel. But I can provide some insights into the story.
- Elizabeth, Stephan and Nathan are the only characters “on stage” throughout the book, making for taut, intimate, heavily emotionally charged scene after scene. Theirs is in essence a love triangle, a highly unusual one.
- Laury employs magical realism, her first venture into that literary realm, and allows that dimension of the narrative to arise organically. I didn’t even notice the first initial hints at magical realism, but as I clued into them and they move to the forefront to command the narrative deep into the book, I was further charmed by Laury’s storytelling skills.
- Hand in hand with Laury’s magical realism strategy goes the mystery of Stephen, the most enigmatic primary character.
- If there is another character very much on stage during the book, it’s Cape Cod’s landscape of natural beauty, which Laury brings vividly to the mind’s eye. Keep in mind Laury is also an accomplished poet and she applies her poetic skills throughout. To wit: “In the east, a half moon was rising above the fringe of dark trees. A few bats were circling overhead, their sharp wings knifing through the still night air, and cicadas were singing their urgent chorus, pressing into the silence with vigor.” Here’s another description that displays Laury’s prowess at description: “My vision seemed clouded or perhaps it was the ground fog that collected in the pockets between the dune and hills, a silent whiteness that dropped its scrim over the emerald greens of bayberry and holly and the scarlet leaves of poison ivy, which were turning their autumnal color.” It’s almost as if the beauty of nature is a balm for the reader as we descend with Elizabeth into her final days.
- In The Swimmer, Laury mixes straight and gay characters, which I believe deepens the significance of the book for readers. We return to daily life from the book’s reality with a greater understanding of the differences and similarities of both sexual orientations. Ultimately, no matter where you are on the gender spectrum, you see, through these characters’ interactions in the face of impending death, that we’re all in this together…and our fate will one day be the same.
As Elizabeth faces her final days, she becomes profoundly aware of an important life truth: “Life is fragile.” If it wasn’t too late for Elizabeth to learn that life is fragile, it certainly isn’t for us. We have the time to absorb and process that lesson. And that’s what makes The Swimmer an uplifting story of hope. Life is fragile. Treasure it. Now.
The Swimmer is available from the publisher, Heliotrope Books at https://bookshop.org/books/the-swimmer-9781942762720/9781942762720; from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Swimmer-Laury-Egan-ebook/dp/B08Y652VYD/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=The+Swimmer+by+Laury+A.+Egan&qid=1618849766&sr=8-1; from Barnes & Noble, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-swimmer-laury-a-egan/1139200045?ean=9781942762720; and IndieBound, https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781942762720.