Florence Adler Swims Forever

Florence Adler Swims Forever

by Rachel Beanland

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Overview

“The perfect summer read” (USA TODAY) begins with a shocking tragedy that results in three generations of the Adler family grappling with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets across the course of one summer.

“Rachel Beanland is a writer of uncommon wit and wisdom, with a sharp and empathetic eye for character. She’ll win you over in the most old fashioned of ways: She simply tells a hell of a story.” —Rebecca Makkai, Pulitzer Finalist for The Great Believers

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones and an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982132460
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/07/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 113,136
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Rachel Beanland is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She lives with her husband and three children in Richmond, Virginia. Florence Adler Swims Forever is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Gussie Gussie
Gussie Feldman didn’t enjoy swimming but she did like to lie on the wet sand, in the shadow of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, and wait for the tiniest ripple of a wave to wash over her. If she positioned herself just so, her body rose with the incoming tide, and for a brief moment, she felt weightless.

She was lying in just such a manner, staring up at the bright blue sky, when her aunt Florence’s face came into her field of vision. “I discovered a lovely note when I arrived home,” Florence said. “I want to give my compliments to the artist.”

Gussie grinned. She had devoted more than a quarter of an hour to writing the note, which she’d carefully positioned on the Oriental rug in the entryway of her grandparents’ apartment, where Florence would be sure to see it. With her colored pencils, she had written in big, purple letters, Dear Florence! And Anna. We are at the beach. Come have fun! Love, Gussie. At the last minute, she decided she had not used enough exclamation marks, so she added three more after Florence’s name but stopped short of allocating any to Anna. Maybe, if her grandparents’ houseguest noticed she hadn’t been awarded any, she’d decide to stay at the apartment.

“Do you want to be a mermaid?” Gussie asked Florence now, hoping to capitalize on her aunt’s good mood. Sometimes, if Gussie asked sweetly, Florence would cross her legs at the ankles and pretend the two of them were merpeople, out for a swim around the Tongan Islands, which Gussie had read about in her picture book Fairy Tales of the South Seas.

“For a few minutes. Then I’m going to go out for a swim.”

Florence lay down beside Gussie in the surf, and the two of them bumped against each other as the waves lapped at their ankles and hips and shoulders. When their skin touched, Gussie felt shy. It was always like this when her aunt returned home from college. It took time for Gussie to relearn Florence’s face and the amount of space she took up in a room and the funny way she talked to Gussie like she was both a beloved child and a trusted grown-up.

“What do you think of Anna?” Florence asked as she propped herself up on her elbows and gave Anna a wave. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded with people, but Gussie spotted her right away.

“I think it’s her fault I have to sleep on the sun porch.”

Florence let out a loud cackle. “Nonsense. I spent my entire childhood begging your Nana and Papa to clear out that sun porch. Mainly so I could get away from your mother.” She reached out and pinched Gussie in the ribs. “You’re a lucky girl.”

Gussie didn’t know about any of that. The sun porch was fine—no tinier, in actual fact, than her bedroom in her parents’ apartment. The room had a bank of windows that faced the ocean, and if she stood on her tiptoes, she could see beyond the pitched roofs of the homes that lined Virginia Avenue, all the way to the beach, where the blue-and-white umbrellas looked like tiny pinwheels. The view was nice but, on summer mornings, when the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean and its long rays bored through the glass, the room became unbearably hot. In those moments, Gussie wished her grandparents had remained in their house on Atlantic Avenue for the summer.

“I wish we weren’t in the apartment,” she allowed herself to say out loud, since her grandparents were yards away in their beach chairs. In the summer months, Esther and Joseph rented out their house—just one block from the beach—to tourists and moved back into the apartment above the bakery, where, Esther reminded anyone who complained, the family had lived quite happily when Florence and her older sister, Fannie, were small.

“Do you know how many summers I spent wishing I weren’t in that apartment?” Florence asked.

“How many?”

“God, I have no idea,” she said, sending a small splash of water in Gussie’s general direction. “It was a rhetorical question.”

“What’s rhetorical mean?”

Florence looked up at the sky and thought for a moment. “Something you say because it sounds good but not because you actually expect an answer from anyone.”

“Then why say it?”

“Because it’s better than saying nothing at all?” She squeezed a handful of wet sand through her fingers. “But when you put it like that, it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t all just tell each other what we mean.”

Gussie scrunched up her nose and grabbed at her own fistful of sand. What Florence seemed to forget was that, since Gussie was only seven, no one ever told her anything—one way or the other. Everything she’d ever learned about anything she had learned by keeping quiet and paying attention.

Take her mother’s confinement, for instance. She first learned her mother, Fannie, was expecting another baby because she’d overheard her say something to Mrs. Kingman when they had stopped by her shop for a pair of stockings. She guessed the pregnancy was risky because she’d heard her grandfather warn her mother to be careful on several different occasions in recent months. And she knew Dr. Rosenthal had recommended strict bed rest at Atlantic City Hospital because her mother had repeated his prescription to Esther when she’d returned from a recent doctor’s appointment.

There had been a good bit of debate between Gussie’s mother and grandmother over what to do with Gussie while her mother was on bed rest. Remaining with her father, Isaac, had turned out to be out of the question. Gussie knew this because she had overheard Esther tell Fannie so in precisely those words. “Gussie remaining at your apartment is out of the question.”

Gussie was sure her father would balk when he learned that her mother intended to send her to live with her grandparents for the summer but, as her mother’s confinement neared, not a word was said about the plan, one way or the other. The day before Fannie was to be admitted to Atlantic City Hospital, she packed Gussie’s summer clothes and bathing suit, some of her books, her jacks, and coloring pencils away in an old suitcase. The bag sat in the apartment’s narrow hallway, a boulder that Isaac had to step over to get to the kitchen. When Gussie could no longer stand his silence on the subject, she begged, “Father, can’t I stay with you? Here?”

“Gus-Gus,” Isaac said, as if he were going to give her a straightforward response, “what in the world would we get into, knocking around by ourselves?”

Gussie had begun to wonder if her entire life might be rhetorical—no answers for any of it—when Florence pulled her back to the present, “Remember, knees and heels together. If you’re a mermaid you can only move your feet. I mean, fins.”

Gussie pushed off the sandy bottom and scooted through the waves, using her arms to steer and kicking her tail fiercely. Always, she was careful to keep her chin above water. “How do I look?” she called over her shoulder, but Florence wasn’t watching her, wasn’t even looking in her direction. Instead, she sat in the breaking waves, studying the shore.

Gussie circled back, waved a hand in front of Florence’s face. “Let’s pretend you’re the mermaid in the glass tank at Steel Pier, and I’ll swim from Australia to save you.”

“Why do I need to be saved?” said Florence, who still looked very far away. “Don’t I like my life at the Pier?”

“You want to be free to swim about in the ocean, silly.”

Florence turned to face Gussie then, giving her niece her full attention. “Yes, you’re quite right. I nearly forgot.”

When Florence and Gussie returned to the chairs Joseph and Esther had rented, they found Anna sitting on a blanket, alone.

“Your parents went for a walk,” Anna said to Florence, completely ignoring Gussie.

Florence motioned for a small, pleated bag, within arm’s reach of Anna, and Anna passed it to her. As Florence rooted through it, a red bathing cap escaped. Gussie reached for it and handed it to Florence, who waved it away, one hairpin already in hand and three more in her teeth. While Florence pulled her short, brown hair away from her face, Gussie held the rubber cap in her lap, admiring it. Her aunt always had the prettiest things. Tiny stamped divots ran across the cap’s surface in neat rows. Each one reminded Gussie of a starburst.

“Are bathing caps required at this beach?” Anna asked.

Florence mumbled something through her pursed lips but it was unintelligible on account of the pins, so Gussie answered for her. “Not anymore.”

Anna exasperated Gussie but for no real reason. She was quiet and a little hard to understand but she was also perfectly nice, and even pretty—with dark brown hair, green eyes, and pale skin that was unlikely to get any darker if Anna continued to wear drab cotton dresses to the beach.

“My hair just gets in my eyes when I swim,” Florence said after removing the last pin from her mouth.

“Very good,” said Anna, but the word good came out sounding more like gut. Anna’s English was close to perfect but her accent was heavy, and sometimes her words came out slowly, as if her sentences were a string of taffy. Often, Gussie didn’t have the patience to wait on them. Gussie’s mother had told her to be kind—that she should try to imagine what it must be like for Anna to be in a new place, so far from her parents, but Gussie wasn’t inclined to be sympathetic.

Gussie heard a high-pitched whistle followed by a “heigh-ho!” and turned to watch Stuart Williams leap from the Boardwalk onto the hot sand.

“Have you abandoned your post?” her aunt shouted at him as he raced toward them and grabbed Florence up in a hug. Anna and Gussie stood to greet him, too.

Gussie thought Stuart was very handsome. He didn’t look anything like the men in her family, or any of the men at the synagogue, for that matter. He had clear, blue eyes and short, blond hair, and in the summer months, his skin tanned to a golden brown. He wore the same blue suit that all the Atlantic City Beach Patrol lifeguards wore—a wool one-piece with a white belt and the letters ACBP stitched across his chest.

“Dan said you were here, so I had to come see the siren of the sea for myself.” He rubbed the top of Gussie’s head with his fist and extended a hand toward Anna. “I’m Stuart.”

“Stuart, this is Anna from Germany,” said Florence. “She’s staying with my parents for the summer. Until she goes to college.”

“Good to meet you, Anna from Germany,” he said with a smile. “Where are you going to school?”

“New Jersey State Teachers College.”

“Ah, in picturesque Trenton.”

“He’s a wisecrack. Don’t pay him any attention,” said Florence to Anna, conspiratorially. “Trenton’s fine.”

Stuart’s eyes were shiny and bright. “When’d you get back?” he said, returning his attention to Florence.

Florence put a finger to her lips, as if she were doing a complicated arithmetic problem. “Three or four days ago?”

“And this is the first I’m seeing you? I’m outraged.”

“I went looking for you at the States Avenue stand but they said you’d been booted down the beach.”

He wagged his head in the direction of The Covington. “Long story. And one that’s probably best told from the stern of a boat.”

“Stuart coaches the Ambassador Swim Club in the off-season,” Florence said to Anna. “Spent four years ordering me around.”

“A lot of good it did,” said Stuart.

“He’s a monster,” Florence said to Anna, which Gussie knew was not actually true. It bothered her when grown-ups said the opposite of what they meant.

“So, you’re really going to do it?” he asked Florence when everyone’s smiles had faded from their faces.

“I am.”

“How’s the training been going?”

“Fine, good. I’m in the pool all the time, so it’s been good to get back in the ocean.”

Gussie wondered if Anna even knew about Florence’s plan. She was about to say something when Anna asked, “Is there a competition?”

“Just with myself,” Florence said with a laugh.

“She’s going to swim the English Channel,” said Stuart.

Florence corrected him, “Attempt to swim the English Channel.”

“Don’t pretend to be modest,” he said. “We can all see right through you.”

Florence reached over, touched Anna’s arm, and whispered, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Don’t listen to him,” and to Gussie’s great surprise, Anna laughed. The noise was so foreign, Gussie didn’t know quite what to make of it. Anna had arrived in Atlantic City in March—Joseph had driven up to Jersey City to collect her from the ferry terminal—and, in all that time, Gussie had never seen her eyes so much as twinkle.

Florence turned serious. “Stuart’s actually been a big help.”

“Might not want to give me too much credit until you make it across.”

“How long does it take to swim the whole thing?” Anna asked.

“Trudy Ederle did it in a little over fourteen hours. I’m hoping to do it in under twelve.”

“That’s a long time in the water,” said Anna.

Gussie was desperate to contribute to the conversation. “Florence says your tongue swells up like a balloon.”

“Is that true?” said Anna.

Florence shrugged her shoulders. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“She’ll be great,” said Stuart. “By the time I’m through with her this summer, she might as well fly across.”

“Do you start in England or France?” Anna asked.

“France,” said Florence. “Cape Gris-Nez. The tide’s a little more forgiving if you swim toward Dover.”

“So, will you go to France, too?” Anna asked Stuart.

Stuart looked as if he were about to say something but Florence cut him off. “Over my father’s dead body. Both he and Mother think it would be completely improper.”

“Once she gets to France, she’s got Bill Burgess. He’s world class. She won’t need me.”

“Not true,” said Florence.

Something about the easy way Florence, Stuart, and even Anna talked made Gussie yearn to be a grown-up. As she watched them, she practiced resting a hand on her hip and using the other to make big, important gestures. Stuart crossed his arms at his chest, and she tried that, too, but it didn’t feel as natural. Eventually, when he noticed she was mimicking him, he winked at her and she tied her arms in knots behind her back.

Stuart looked at his wrist but must have realized he wasn’t wearing a watch. “I’ve got to get back. Meet me at the Kentucky Avenue stand tomorrow morning at six?” he said to Florence. “I’ll tail you in the boat for a couple of hours.”

Florence didn’t say anything, just lifted her chin, which Gussie interpreted as a yes.

“It was nice to meet you,” Anna said to Stuart as he prepared to depart.

“You too.”

Gussie went to say her own good-bye but Stuart had already begun to jog back toward the Boardwalk.

“He seems nice,” Anna said to Florence once he was well out of earshot. “And also completely in love with you.”

“Stuart?” said Florence, as if she’d never entertained the possibility. “God, no. Now, where did I put my cap?”

Gussie, who’d had it the whole time, handed it to her begrudgingly.

“Do you mind watching Gussie until my parents get back?” Florence said to Anna as she stretched the rubber taut and yanked the cap over her hair.

Gussie couldn’t help feeling annoyed. It had been her idea to go to the beach, and now she was stuck with Anna, who was unlikely to pretend to be a mermaid or much of anything else if she couldn’t even be bothered to change into a proper bathing suit.

“You’re swimming tomorrow morning. With Stuart.” Gussie pleaded with Florence, in a last-ditch effort to redeem the afternoon. But her aunt wasn’t hearing her. She just tucked the last wisps of her hair underneath the bathing cap, blew her a kiss, and headed off in the direction of the ocean.

Gussie watched as Florence waded into the water, past her knees and then her hips. She dove into the crest of a wave, and by the time Gussie could see her again, she was swimming. Florence reminded Gussie of the dolphins they sometimes spotted offshore, so graceful they barely looked like they were moving. She watched her for several more minutes, as she grew smaller and smaller. Eventually, all Gussie could make out against the horizon was Florence’s red bathing cap, and then nothing at all.

Gussie was back in the water, eyes trained on the sky, when she heard three short whistles. She got her feet under her in time to watch one of the lifeguards in the stand nearest them run toward Garden Pier. There, two other lifeguards heaved a rescue boat into the waves.

“Gussie,” Anna called. “Get out. Now.”

It took a moment for Gussie to shake the water out of her ears. Had she heard her correctly? The beach seemed unnaturally quiet, as if she were watching a film with no sound.

She looked up the beach and watched as her grandparents ambled toward them.

“Where’s Florence?” Esther asked in a loud enough voice to be heard over the sound of the breaking waves.

Anna responded. “She went for a swim.”

“When?”

“Maybe an hour ago.”

Gussie watched as her grandmother took in Anna and Gussie, then the small cluster of people who had gathered farther down the beach, then the boat hastening toward the horizon. Without warning, Esther took off down the beach at a run, Joseph following close behind. Gussie had never seen either of her grandparents run anywhere before, and she was surprised at how proficient they looked doing it.

She waded ashore, and Anna wrapped her in a towel, then led her in the direction of Garden Pier, too. By the time they reached Esther and Joseph, the rescue boat was so far from shore, it was difficult to make out what was happening. Gussie shielded her eyes with her hand, trying to see more clearly. It looked as if the vessel had stopped, and one or both of the lifeguards had jumped overboard.

“Is it her?” Esther whispered to Joseph in a voice loud enough for Gussie to hear.

“Who?” Gussie asked, but no one, including Anna, responded.

After several long minutes, the rescue boat began to grow larger again. Gussie could make out only one lifeguard rowing toward the shore. Where had the other one gone? It wasn’t until the boat grew much closer that she saw the second lifeguard, bent over something in the bottom of the boat.

The boat plowed onto the wet sand, about a dozen yards from where the small crowd had gathered. Its oars clattered against the oarlocks and landed in the sand, and the men worked quickly to lift what could only have been a person from the bottom of the boat.

That’s when Gussie saw it—the flash of color—and she looked at Anna to see if she’d seen it, too. Anna’s hand moved to her mouth. The lifeguards lifted the body, pale and motionless, out of the boat and onto the sand but all Gussie could bear to look at was the red cap on her aunt’s head. She covered her ears with her hands as the air filled with the sound of her grandmother’s wails.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Florence Adler Swims Forever includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets in this stunning debut novel.

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes during one of Florence’s practice swims, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth about what happened from Fannie—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones, and is an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

Topics & Questions for Discussion (12–-15 Discussion Questions)

1. Florence Adler Swims Forever opens with Florence’s death and ends with the birth of Fannie’s baby. In what ways do life and death frame this novel?

2. Early on, Gussie says that Florence always spoke to her like both a “beloved child and a trusted grown-up” (4). Apart from Florence, how do the other adults in Gussie’s life treat her? Do you think it was right to send her to live with Esther for the summer, or appropriate to make her keep such a big secret from her mother?

4. In the early 1930s, Atlantic City was seen as the “Jewish Riviera” of the East Coast. In what ways do you see Jewish culture celebrated within this community? In what ways do you see it under threat?

5. Describe Fannie and Florence’s relationship. Do they have roles that they fall into? What do you think is gained by a seven-year age gap? What complications are introduced?

6. When Florence dies, Esther’s first instinct is to keep Florence’s death a secret to protect Fannie and her pregnancy. Discuss how others respond to this request. If you were in each character’s shoes, do you think you could have kept this secret?

7. When Joseph and Stuart go to see Florence’s ship sail out of New York, Joseph explains that “you give your children every possible chance” in life (188). What chances do the parents in this book give their children? Do these chances come with sacrifice? What chances seem to carry more weight—Anna’s parents sending her away (financial), the Adlers supporting Florence’s dreams (emotional), or Fannie staying on bed rest so her child can be healthy (physical)? Is one any more important than another?

8. When Anna visits Fannie at the hospital and reads to her from Tender Is the Night, she tells her that “we’re all beholden to someone” (228). Who are the various characters “beholden” to in this novel? Are they willingly so, or are they bound by structures that seem unshakeable—like marriage, faith, or secrets?

9. Fannie is devastated by the death of her infant son, Hyram. Her mother, Esther, doesn’t understand her grief, saying he doesn’t need a gravestone because Fannie “didn’t need a place to go and wallow” (33). What does it mean to Fannie to be pregnant again? How do these two mothers—Fannie and Esther—handle the death of their respective children?

10. The rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism in Germany, which had monumental effects on the lives of Jewish people in Europe leading into World War II, is a lingering threat throughout the book. Did anything surprise you about the experiences of Anna and her family? How would you have felt in their position?

11. How do you feel about Anna and Stuart’s love story? What do they each bring to the relationship? Why do you think they are drawn to each other?

12. Near the end of the novel, Joseph strikes a deal with Isaac to entice him to leave the family forever. What do you think of Isaac’s decision? Do you think—if he stayed—that he could have changed? Or was he meant to pursue something different with his life?

13. The novel ends without the reader learning of Fannie’s reaction to the news of Florence’s death and Isaac’s departure. Based on what you know about Fannie, how do you think she took the news? What do you think her life looks like after these revelations? How would you have reacted if put in the same position?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Florence Adler Swims Forever is based on a true story from Rachel Beanland’s family. Share a story that is often retold and referred to in your own family. What does this story say about your family’s understanding of its past? What has it meant to you in your own life?

2. A core theme of the book is that swimming is equated with freedom, power, and a lack of self-consciousness. Consider taking a trip to the local YMCA or to the ocean to swim as a group. Do you feel the same way about the water as Florence does? Or maybe you feel more like Gussie—preferring the stories of the water to the swimming itself?

3. Learn more about the rich history of Atlantic City, “The Queen of Seaside Resorts,” at http://www.atlanticcityexperience.org.

A Conversation with Rachel Beanland

A Conversation with Rachel Beanland

Q: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever. How long have you been working on your novel? What was your process in writing it?

A: Thank you. Writing the book and seeing it published has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I’d always considered myself a writer, but when I turned thirty-five, I decided that I needed to stop saying I wanted to write a novel and actually write a novel. I was working full-time, raising three kids, and I had no free time. I knew that the only way I was going to get a novel written was if I wrote it while the rest of my family was asleep, so I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and wrote for two-and-a-half hours a day, seven days a week, for two straight years!

For the most part, I wrote the book linearly. I have friends who write books in separate chunks and then move those chunks around until they’ve got something they’re happy with. I much prefer to get page one right and then move on to page two. I didn’t know how the book would end when I started writing, although I did always know that Fannie’s baby would be safely delivered into the world and that Esther would play a large role in the final scene. I needed her to reckon with both her loss and her decision to keep that loss from Fannie.

Q: Florence Adler is based on the story of one of your ancestors, your great-great-aunt, Florence Lowenthal. What was it like to grow up with this as a central story in your family?

A: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Florence Lowenthal’s drowning. It was a story that was told frequently in my family, usually by my mother. While she would give the details of Florence’s death, her real focus was always on Florence’s mother, whom I renamed Esther, and how tough she must have been to visit one daughter in the hospital, day after day, and never let on that her other daughter had died.

Whenever my mother retold the story, the moral was obvious. If you loved someone—your spouse, your parents, your children—it was your prerogative and even your responsibility to shield them from information that might cause them pain. My siblings and I took the message to heart. Over the course of our lives, we’ve hidden health scares, mental health diagnoses, and even deaths from the people we love most.

As a child, I can remember pushing back on this assumption that Florence’s mother was right to keep her death a secret. I thought about my own brother and sisters and how I’d feel if anything happened to one of them. It felt important to me to be able to grieve such a significant loss in real time, and to make my own decisions about how I chose to mark a loss and mourn a death. Whenever I’d voice those feelings, my mother—and sometimes my grandmother—would come down firmly on the other side of my argument. I think the fact that we couldn’t come to consensus was what told me I had the makings of a compelling novel on my hands.

Q: Did you ever consider writing the story as nonfiction? Was it difficult to fictionalize a story that was based on true events?

A: I never considered writing a nonfiction account of Florence’s drowning and its aftermath because I just didn’t think I had enough facts. What I had was a bare bones story, which had been passed down through the family like we’d been playing a giant game of telephone. With a little research, I was able to straighten out a few facts that had become skewed over the years and sketch in some more details, but it was never enough to comprise an entire work of nonfiction. Plus, my gut was that Florence’s story would be enhanced by looking at it through the prism of other people’s stories.

As for whether it was difficult to fictionalize Florence’s story, I thought it might be, but because these events happened nearly ninety years ago, I found I was able—pretty easily—to treat everyone as the fictional characters they quickly became. I think it helped that, aside from my grandmother, I had never met any of these people in real life. And even in the case of my grandmother, I’d certainly never met her as a little girl! It was more difficult for my mother and her cousins to read the manuscript because they had grown up spending summers in Atlantic City with their grandparents—my Fannie and Isaac. In particular, my mother had a difficult time with Isaac because she knew her grandfather to be an extremely loving man. When she read the manuscript for the first time, I had to keep reminding her that what she was reading was a work of fiction. It took her about two hundred pages to forgive me for Isaac, but when she finished the book, in tears, she called me up and declared it beautiful. She’s now the book’s biggest publicist, so I think we’re good!

Q: Florence Adler Swims Forever is set in Atlantic City in the 1930s and is a vividly rendered portrait of this place during a time of great joy (post-Depression) and impending sadness (pre–World War II). What research did you do to bring this place and this time period to life?

A: While my grandparents grew up in Atlantic City and my mother spent significant time there as a child, Atlantic City existed for me only in my family’s stories. When I decided to write this novel, I knew I needed to thoroughly research both the place and the time period.

I started by doing a lot of reading—books such as Charles E. Funnell’s By the Beautiful Sea and A. L. English’s History of Atlantic City, New Jersey were helpful—but I quickly realized I was going to need more visuals if I wanted to make the city come to life.

What many people may not realize is that the Atlantic City of my grandmother’s childhood no longer exists. Gambling was legalized in 1976, and in the decades that followed the majority of the old hotels were razed to make room for the casinos we know today. Many of the landmarks alluded to in this novel are long gone, including the storefront my great-grandparents owned at the corner of Virginia and Atlantic Avenues. I could—and would—make a research trip to present day Atlantic City, but the work I did beforehand was critical to understanding the city the Adlers, not to mention my own family, called home.

In its heyday Atlantic City attracted millions of visitors each summer, which means that—thankfully—a lot of souvenirs and related ephemera have survived. Visitors bought stacks of postcards depicting the famous boardwalk and piers, as well as restaurants, hotels, and even shops, and they mailed them to friends and family across the world. Now those postcards turn up in library archives and on eBay with some regularity. A quick Google search for “Hygeia Baths” or “Chalfont Hotel” almost always delivered me good results.

To help visualize how my characters moved through the city, I found and printed an oversized map of historic Atlantic City, which I mounted on foam core. With the postcards as clues, I used pins to mark the location of hotels and restaurants, boardwalk concessions and beach tents. It was a laborious process but it helped me tremendously. If my characters set off walking somewhere, I knew exactly what they’d pass along the way.

Q: In Florence Adler Swims Forever, the characters wrestle with grief and suffering (and these feelings are complicated by the fact that they must grieve in a very private, secretive way). Each character responds to Florence’s death differently. Was it difficult for you to imagine how each character felt? Do you think the characters would have derived comfort from being able to share in collective grief (something the Jewish faith is known for)?

A: My father died of pancreatic cancer when he was fifty-eight. I reference the loss in this book’s acknowledgments but I think it’s worth mentioning again here. Had I not had that early experience with losing someone I dearly loved, I don’t know that I could have written this book, or at least done justice to the grief associated with Florence’s loss. What I learned as I navigated my relationship with my mother and siblings, and even my relationship with my husband and son after my father’s death, is that we all grieve differently and in our own way. I think rituals are hugely important, and when we don’t find them in our faith, we look for them in other places. One of the things rituals do is teach us how to let go.

Before I lost my father, I never knew what to say to someone who was grieving. Afterward, I realized I wanted to hear people say his name aloud, to listen to them recall their favorite stories about him, to know they too were invested in keeping his memory alive. Writing this novel, I ached for the Adlers because I knew that in keeping Florence’s death a secret, they were robbing themselves of a vital aspect of mourning. When we share our grief, we validate the fact that the person we have loved and lost made a lasting impression on our lives.

Q: The book contains many details about life in an American Jewish community in the 1930s. Was it easy for you to represent both the cultural and religious aspects of this experience? What did you feel was important to convey to readers about the Jewish experience at this time?

A: I was raised in a culturally Jewish household but I wouldn’t say we were very religious. So, when it came to writing about the cultural and religious aspects of life in Jewish Atlantic City, I relied on a lot of research. One book that was extremely helpful to me was Leo B. Shoffer’s A Dream, A Journey, a Community: A Nostalgic Look at Jewish Businesses In and Around Atlantic City. Another was a book in the Images of America series—Leonard F. Vernon and Allen Meyers’s Jewish South Jersey. Joseph Brandes’s Immigrants to Freedom: Jewish Communities in Rural New Jersey Since 1882 helped me better understand Isaac’s upbringing in Alliance, and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made is a critical text for anyone who wants to learn more about the larger Jewish immigrant experience in the United States.

My grandmother always called Atlantic City a “Jewish town” but it wasn’t until I started to immerse myself in the research that I realized the city did in fact have a higher percentage of Jewish residents than other cities of its size. This was due, in large part, to the fact that Atlantic City wasn’t developed until the 1850s, when the Camden & Atlantic Railroad laid the first railroad tracks to Absecon Island. The city’s boom coincided—quite precisely—with a spike in Jewish immigration to the United States. Jewish laborers, merchants, and professionals who had newly arrived in this country were looking for places where they might establish a foothold, and in Atlantic City everyone was hiring. It was exciting for Jewish immigrants to settle in a fledgling city with dreams as big as their own.

Q: Isaac could have been easily characterized as a deadbeat husband and written off as someone who readers would be happy to see leave. However, you depict him with a lot of empathy. What do you think of his ambitions and the decisions he makes?

A: It was very important to me to write Isaac as a complex character who—like all of us—has both good and bad traits. I didn’t think readers would agree with his actions but I wanted them to appreciate or at least try to understand his motivations. We’re all products of the world in which we grow up, and Isaac was deeply shaped by his early experiences and even the experiences of his parents. Isaac gets more backstory than many of the other characters in the book, and it’s because I wanted readers to get some sense of where his ambition came from and how devastating it can be when that ambition is misdirected.

Isaac’s decision to take Joseph’s money and leave Atlantic City was in keeping with what I knew about his character, and it was also my way of offering Fannie a second chance. Women in the early twentieth century didn’t have many options when they found themselves in bad marriages, but I—like Joseph—couldn’t imagine leaving Fannie to live out her days alongside a man who could never be happy with her.

Q: Your novel switches perspective between all of the major characters except the one at its center: Florence. Do you think Florence’s story is well-told by those around her, or are there pieces that only she can tell?

A: I settled on the novel’s rotating structure very early on in the writing process. Because I was dealing with family secrets, I knew I couldn’t write an omniscient narrator. Each secret had to come out in its own time. By rotating perspective and only allowing the reader access to the mind of one character at a time, I was able to sustain tension and reveal secrets when it felt appropriate to do so.

What took me longer to figure out was when and how to make Florence’s presence felt. I wanted readers to love her, so that they’d understand how greatly she was missed, and to achieve that end, I played around with the idea of giving her a prologue, and even inserting chapters that dealt specifically with her past. At that time, I was showing early chapters of the manuscript to a writing workshop, and I owe those first readers a huge debt. They convinced me that I didn’t need to tell any part of the story from Florence’s perspective but that if I interspersed other people’s memories of her throughout the book, readers would come to love her anyway. Of course, this does mean that we won’t ever know the full extent of Florence’s feelings for Anna, or what happened to her during the final moments of her life, but I’m okay with that.

Q: What was it like to write from each character’s perspective? Were there characters who were easier to write than others?

A: I love rotating perspectives because, as a writer, I never have a chance to grow bored with any of my characters. Each character has to work so hard and so efficiently during their limited time on the page, and for me, that presents a fun challenge. Also, every time I come back around to someone I haven’t seen in a while, it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.

As far as who was easiest or most difficult to write, it’s hard to say. Each character presented his or her own rewards and challenges. Gussie was enjoyable to write because she’s the embodiment of my grandmother as a young girl. Also, my eldest daughter was about Gussie’s age when I started the project, so I was inspired by her. People say it’s hard to write child narrators in adult fiction—that, as readers, we want our narrators to be capable of processing advanced thoughts and emotions. But I do think there can be this poignancy and humor in writing a child as he or she navigates an adult world; Gussie understands a lot but not everything, and what she is and isn’t capable of translating is as much a reflection on the people around her as it is on her.

Fannie was a challenging character for me to write for a number of reasons. For one thing, she’s confined to a hospital room. We’re taught to write characters in action and, by definition, Fannie can’t move, or at least not much! She’s also the only character in the novel who doesn’t know about Florence’s death; the fact that she’s being kept in the dark strips her of some of her agency. I wanted Fannie’s chapters to be as robust as those of the other six characters, but to accomplish that I had to be creative. She needed visitors, obviously, but waiting around for people to appear in her hospital room couldn’t be her whole life. I wanted her to form real connections with the doctors and nurses who cared for her, and I also knew she needed her own concerns about both the baby she was carrying and the baby who had died the previous year. When I discovered that the famous Dionne quintuplets had been born during the same time period as Fannie’s confinement, I felt that the universe had handed me a rare gift. Of course she’d be obsessed with them!

Q: The book ends without us knowing how Fannie responds to Florence’s death and Isaac’s departure. How did you know when to end the story? And do you know what happens beyond the pages, or is that for us to decide?

A: I get this question a lot. But the funny thing is, it never occurred to me to write that scene in the hospital—the one where Joseph and Esther tell Fannie that Florence is dead and Isaac is gone. Writers are taught that every scene needs to present new information, which will ultimately move the story forward. That scene, in which Fannie finally learns the truth, already exists in all of our heads. And it’s devastating, right? I could have written a scene that captured some of that devastation, but the reality is that readers wouldn’t have walked away with any new information.

I also think there’s something about not sharing the scene that is in keeping with the ethos of the time. After the real Florence died and the family got through that terrible summer, my great-great-grandmother never uttered her daughter’s name again. She even destroyed her photographs, which I find both fascinating and heartbreaking. In that post–World War I era, people dealt with tragedy differently. They didn’t talk so much. Women like my great-great-grandmother put on a good face and moved forward as best they could.

Q: What do you hope continues to resonate with readers long after they’ve placed Florence Adler Swims Forever back on the shelf?

With Florence’s story, there was this underlying assumption, within the family, that my great-grandmother wasn’t strong enough to bear the simultaneous burdens of a dangerous pregnancy and her sister’s death. That to protect her, essentially from herself, the family had no choice but to keep this terrible secret.

I still wonder whether, if I had been Esther, I would have told Fannie that Florence had died. I thought that, by the time I finished this novel, I’d have answered that question—if nothing else. But I still don’t know what I’d do, in her shoes. What I do know is that women are frequently underestimated, and my experiences as a daughter, sister, wife, and mother contradict the narrative that we can’t hold great sorrow and great joy in our hands at the same time. In fact, it’s often the only thing we can do.

Q: Are you working on anything now? And, if so, can you tell us about it?

I’ve got a few projects I’m juggling, so we’ll see what comes of them. I don’t know if it’s because my parents came from such different worlds or because I grew up as a military kid, moving someplace new every couple of years, but I find I usually think about all prospective novels first in terms of setting. Atlantic City was such a rich setting for this novel, it’s as if it became another character in the story. I’d love my next project to have that same connection to place.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Every writer is different but, for me, my breakthrough came about a decade ago when I started making myself write every day. I’d heard the old Flannery O’Connor quote, “Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there,” and I figured I couldn’t control much but I could control the sitting.

I created a ritual out of my writing. I sat in the same spot each morning, wore the same ratty sweatshirt, and drank from the same coffee cup. Soon, my daily writing practice was a habit I couldn’t break. Every page I produced wasn’t perfect but it did bring me much closer to the book you hold in your hands.

Q: Have you ever been a part of a book club, and if so, what made it special? How did you decide what to read together? What makes for a good book club pick?

A: Before I went back to graduate school, I was a member of not one but two book clubs! I think they’re a wonderful way to discover new writers and make new friends. Even when a book club is made up of your oldest and dearest friends, discussing a challenging book helps us better understand each other’s differences. As a writer, I think it’s especially worthwhile to belong to book clubs. I can get really in the weeds, thinking about a story on the sentence level. It’s important to remember that everyone doesn’t read literature the same way, and that people are reading in the bath or the carpool line or on an exercise bike, and that what they’re looking for in a good book is both beautiful writing and a compelling story that keeps them turning pages.

One of the book clubs I belonged to adopted a really great selection process. The host chose three books she was interested in reading, and the rest of the group voted on their favorite. (They did all their voting in a shared Google document.) The system worked well because, when it was your turn to host, you were guaranteed a book you were excited about, but when you weren’t hosting, you still felt invested in the selection.

I read a lot of literary fiction, and feel like book clubs work best when the novels under discussion have at least a few divisive characters and plenty of big unanswerable what-would-you-do questions. I love a good debate and there’s nothing better than that moment at book club when the room erupts in conversation, everyone so excited about the book that they’re talking over one another. I hope Florence Adler Swims Forever is that book for many of you.

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