It is a challenging time for any author to be releasing a novel, but particularly so for début novelists like Rachel Beanland, who have yet to make their mark. Yet one hopes that her novel, “Florence Adler Swims Forever,” will not go unnoticed in the mêlée.
Though Florence Adler is the title character, her death (due to a swimming accident in the novel’s opening pages) means that this novel follows her family members and friends in the aftermath of the loss, and Beanland paints a complex picture of both the Jewish community to which the family belongs and the novel’s political moment.
Set in the early 1930s when Hitler is solidifying his power, Beanland’s novel has two main plotlines. In one, Florence’s sister, Fannie, is on bedrest because of a high-risk pregnancy. Their mother, Esther, fearing that the news will send Fannie into an early labor, decides to wait to tell Fannie the truth about her sister’s death. This decision brings everyone in the family’s orbit into a complex web of deceit. Meanwhile, Esther’s husband, Joseph, responding to unresolved guilt in his past, decides to bring a Hungarian girl called Anna to the U.S. Her connection to Joseph mystifies the people around him, and as the weight of the secrets and deceit settles, the family begins to show signs of strain.
This novel, based in part on Beanland’s own family history, is at its core about people navigating complex moral dilemmas. Yet in her masterfully paced novel, Beanland also demonstrates remarkable compassion and understanding for her characters at every turn, and these flawed, real people will get under readers’ skins so that their fates matter—truly matter.
And while there is such humanity here and “Florence Adler Swims Forever” feels in some ways like a classic, the author also uses the narrative to engage in a complex, nuanced and fresh discussion about privilege and prejudice, probing in particular matters of class and faith.
Despite what can at times seem like a heavy subject matter, Beanland’s narrative is also characterized by extraordinary warmth and lightness. Her moving portrait of a family in crisis shows how far we will go to protect those we love and demonstrates that love, though much lauded, is nor without challenges.
Ashley Riggleson is a freelance writer from Rappahannock County.