Swimming Toward the Ocean

Swimming Toward the Ocean by Carole L. Glickfeld, Alfred A. Knopf, $24

AN EFFECTIVE NOVEL LURKS INSIDE Swimming Toward the Ocean, Carole L. Glickfeld’s second book (Her first, Useful Gifts, 1989, was a collection of short stories.) The focus here is Chenia Arnow, a spirited though uneducated Eastern European immigrant.

The novel’s narrator is Devorah, the youngest of Chenia’s children, who recalls memories and creates new ones in an attempt to piece together her childhood. That she does so from both her own and her mother’s (imagined) point of view is a difficult trick that Glickfeld, thanks to her lucid writing, pulls off nicely.

The story begins when Devorah is in the womb. It is then that 45-year-old Chenia, trapped in a loveless, 1950s marriage to an unfaithful husband, jumps rope in hopes of miscarrying, Chenia’s despair leads her to an aborted suicide attempt and then an affair of her own which awakens latent passions. The story moves from Brooklyn’s Coney Island—lovingly evoked—to Manhattan, where the affair ends in disaster and another suicide attempt. This one lands Chenia in an institution, and young Devorah at her cousins’ in New Jersey.

Devorah hungers for her mother’s love and attention, even more so when Chenia recuperates and marries a good, dull man who squashes her wit and fire. An unsatisfying ending, which hurriedly tracks 25 years, doesn’t adequately explain why Devorah so badly needs to understand her mother’s life, and the ways in which it has affected her own. Yet Gliekfeld’s deft prose and distinctive characters make Swimming Toward the Ocean an engaging and sometimes moving story.