Release Date: January 10, 2012
Publisher: Fiction Studio Books
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Literature
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Sixteen-year-old Sarah Kunitz lives in a posh, suburban world of 1970 Boston. From the outside, her parents’ lifestyle appears enviable – a world defined by cocktail parties, expensive cars, and live-in maids to care for their children – but inside their five-bedroom house, all is not well for the Kunitz family. Coming home from school, Sarah finds her well-dressed, pill-popping mother lying disheveled on their living room couch. At night, to escape their parents’ arguments, Sarah and her oldest brother, Peter, find solace in music, while her two younger brothers retreat to their rooms and imaginary lives. Any vestige of decorum and stability drains away when their mother dies in a car crash one terrible winter day. Soon after, their father, a self-absorbed, bombastic professor begins an affair with a younger colleague. Sarah, aggrieved, dives into two summer romances that lead to unforeseen consequences. In a story that will make you laugh and cry, Night Swim shows how a family, bound by heartache, learns to love again.
My Thoughts: Sarah is struggling to figure out who she is and what her hopes and dreams are for her future life. She desires the love and support of her mother, Irene, as she searches for who she is but the more she reaches for her mother, the more she seems to slip away. Sarah finds solace in the music she and her brother, Peter, share nightly to cope with the dysfunction that marks most family dinners. Her father, Leonard, an English professor, is a controlling madman with “...dark, quick eyes scooping up the slightest imperfections in everyone around him.” Irene once played the violin, practicing for hours, performing in recitals and concerts. She's replaced this with weekly luncheons and bridge games with her country club friends and the responsibilities of a housewife. Irene also pops pain pills daily and enjoyed evening cocktail hours. Sarah often finds her mother “...lying on the living room couch sipping a drink, one arm draped to the floor.”
Sarah desperately wants her mother’s love and yearns for a way to connect with her before she slips away completely. Jessica Keener adeptly conveys the two sides of Sarah: the mature one understands that something is missing in her mother, distancing her from her family and is trying to find out what that is while the younger Sarah is afraid to discover what it is that keeps her mother at a distance. Sarah often thinks about what could be impacting her mother, hoping that whatever it is will simply vanish enabling her to bond with mother. As the novel progresses, Sarah realizes with trepidation that her mother is slipping away more and more.
A frightening incident occurs one night after her parents throw a party. Irene, having had several drinks takes her car out for a drive and ends up ina nearby lake. Bruised and battered she spends a week in the hospital following this accident. Sarah is furious when everyone around her insists on calling this incident an “accident”. She is aware there’s more going on here but frutrated because she doesn’t know what to do about it. She's concerned her mother's gone crazy. Her father wallows in self-pity and drinks, doing nothing to address Irene’s issues infuriating Sarah. At times, it seems her family’s dysfunction may send Sarah over the precipice of sanity herself. Then, when the unthinkable happens and her mother dies in another accident, all of Sarah’s anger drains away, replaced by a deep pain. Keener’s prose conveys the rawness of Sarah’s grief and her disbelief at what’s happened. Almost more painful is Sarah’s realization that life goes on despite the death of her mother.
Keener’s portrayal of Sarah’s life following Irene’s death resonates with truth and is relatable for many readers. Her father doesn’t step up and become a supportive, loving parent. He behaves as if he’s the only one who has suffered a loss. He takes care of only himself, quickly finding another woman, one extremely different from Irene. Other aspects of Sarah‘s life on which she depended also change, making this time that much more painfully difficult for her. At this same time, Sarah realizes and acknowledges to herself that she lost her mother, physically, prior to her death. She’s now grieving not having her mother to talk to and touch but also losing the chance to connect and bond with her mother. This is an awful burden for any person to take on, particularly a young girl on the verge of adulthood. It’s no wonder that Sarah rebels, behaving in ways typical to a girl without a mother. Sarah’s behavior seems almost deliberate at times, as if she’s flinging in her mother’s face what she's caused by leaving Sarah. But her actions, a manifestation of her need to get away from the pain, anger and confusion coursing through her body, only result in hurting her.
It’s hard to believe this gripping, amazing novel is Keener’s debut. Her beautiful prose is exquisite and mesmerizing, absorbing you into the story immediately and keeping you hooked even when Sarah’s emotion and confusion becomes too painful or Leonard’s behavior too selfish. Keener has created an exceptional, very real character in Sarah, one whom many of us can identify with and relate to as she fights to become a woman she can be proud of. I rooted for Sarah to find her way through her grief and come out of her journey stronger, happier and with an understanding of what in her life has always connected her to her mother. I highly recommend Night Swim especially to readers who understand the pain of losing a loved one and the struggle to find a connection to them after they are physically gone from your life.
Jessica Keener has a fantastic Website which I urge you to check out. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter
Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Jessica Keener for a copy of Night Swim and for the opportunity to read and review this book.