Florence Adler Swims Forever (Simon & Schuster, $25.99) is a poignant title for a
book about a woman who drowns in the first chapter. Yet it’s the perfect title for
Rachel Beanland’s new novel, telling the interwoven stories of the loved ones the
titular character leaves behind.
This book pulls us immediately into its vibrant setting, Atlantic City, summer of 1934, halfway through the Great Depression, a city on the cusp of change. Enter Florence, an independent college student who’s returned home to train in pursuit of her dream to swim the English Channel. One day in June, she snaps on her red bathing cap, dives into the crest of a wave, swims almost to the horizon, and inexplicably drowns.
Those left behind to grieve Florence tell their stories in alternating chapters, focusing especially on the women, who reflect Florence in strength and determination. First, we meet Esther, Florence’s mother, who sets the plot in motion. In the rescue tent, standing over Florence’s
still-dripping body, Esther devises a plan to keep Florence’s death from her other
daughter, Fannie, who is hospitalized through the final months of a precarious pregnancy. There could be no public funeral, no shiva. “Fannie can’t know,” Esther says, or she might lose the baby.
Gussie, Fannie’s daughter, is spending the summer with her grandparents while
her mother is restricted to bedrest. She idolizes Florence, the strong, smart, epitome of what a woman can be. Even at age seven, Gussie tries to be strong through the long summer that follows Florence’s death, tries to keep the secret, tries to make sense of the adult world. Anna, a refugee from the rise of Nazism, is a guest sharing Florence’s bedroom, while pursuing every narrowing opportunity to bring her parents out of Germany. Drawn into helping Gussie keep the secret, Anna has secrets of her own. Eventually she determines to step into
one of Florence’s bathing suits and learn to swim. How this might aid her efforts to
save her parents remains to be seen.
Of course, there are men in this story, too, and they carry their own secrets.
There’s non-Jewish Stuart, the lifeguard who may or may not have been Florence’s beloved. And there’s Isaac, Fannie’s ne’er-do-well husband, whose secrets revolve around risky get-rich-quick schemes. The man who ties all these stories together is Joseph, the family patriarch, Esther’s husband, father of Florence and Fannie. Joseph tries to solve everyone’s problems with his loving guidance and the hard-earned cash from his mom-and-pop bakery. But what secrets does Joseph carry, about Anna, her mother, and his own European youth?
The character Florence Adler is loosely based on the author’s great-great-aunt
Florence Lowenthal, who drowned off the coast of Atlantic City in 1929, and the novel’s plot mirrors the family’s real-life decision to keep the tragic news from the author’s great- grandmother as she suffered through a difficult pregnancy. Truth doesn’t always guarantee believable fiction, and some readers might question Esther’s decision to protect one daughter, Fannie, at the expense of properly mourning another daughter, Florence.
But this story is a paean to its time. Beanland’s attention to the details of Atlantic City’s Jewish community in the1930s—its shuls and cemeteries, bakeries and burial societies—and to the details of women’s lives in that era—from bathing costumes to nosy hospital matrons—captures the reader. She makes us feel as if we are there, mourning Florence, making
decisions that we might not make today. And she reminds us, as Joseph comes to understand, that, after her death, Florence “was to be found in the people
who loved her most.”
Elizabeth Edelglass is a book reviewer and writer whose fiction has won the Lilith short story contest.