Aspiring costume designer Katie gave up everything in her divorce to gain custody of her fearful, faithful rescue dog, Barkimedes. While she figures out what to do next, she heads back to Florida to live with her grandmother, Nan.
But Katie quickly learns there’s a lot she doesn’t know about Nan—like the fact that in her youth Nan was a mermaid performer in a roadside attraction show, swimming and dancing underwater with a close-knit cast of talented women. Although most of the mermaids have since lost touch, Katie helps Nan search for her old friends on Facebook, sparking hopes for a reunion show. Katie is up for making some fabulous costumes, but first, she has to contend with her crippling fear of water.
As Katie’s college love Luca, a documentary filmmaker, enters the fray, Katie struggles to balance her hopes with her anxiety, and begins to realize just how much Bark’s fears are connected to her own, in this thoughtful, charming novel about hope after loss and friendships that span generations.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Swimming for Sunlight
My husband brought a date to our divorce.
To be fair, she didn’t come in the actual room. And according to Eric she wasn’t a date, she was a friend, but it was still bullshit. He knew it and I knew it and I don’t think either of us wanted it to be that way, but that’s where we were. He was defensive and hurt and mean, and needed to bring his friend along to say, See? You see? Someone loves me. You couldn’t, but someone does. And I was just there. Involuntary processes. Flesh taking up space. Even in that moment, I wanted to be better for him. Give him a better divorce. A satisfying fight, or at least one last burst of kindness to end what we both started with decent intentions. With hope, at least. We didn’t get married out of indifference.
His friend sat on a bench in the hallway and pressed at the screen of her phone with the pads of her fingers, long fake nails clicking against the glass. I swore I could hear her from the conference room while Eric’s attorney droned on.
“My client requests a divorce be granted on grounds of Irretrievable Breakdown . . .”
Click. Click. Click.
“. . . and maintains neither side is at fault . . .”
Click. Click. Click.
“. . . furthermore, we expect the fair and equitable division of assets . . .”
Clickity. Click. Click. Click.
I picked at the ragged edge of my thumbnail, bitten down too far, while my attorney, Arnold Troyer: Rochester’s Best Divorce Lawyer, responded in sonorous tones, beads of sweat collecting around his sad little horseshoe of brown hair.
I’d pictured Eric’s friend many times, imagining a better version of me. Someone more polished, less nervous, who liked listening to Eric curse through Buffalo Bills games on Sunday afternoons, but was otherwise fundamentally the same. I imagined her that way because I wanted to believe if I’d worked a little harder I could’ve fixed things. If what Eric and I had was close enough to almost work, that meant it had been reasonable to try.
The woman in the hall wasn’t a better version of me. She wasn’t the same species. Probably not the same phylum. Like there was a special kind of spinal column for women who were born to be trophy wives, and it was so much lighter and thinner than everyone else’s. Seeing her made me realize that even if I had worked harder to get better, to be better, to learn the difference between a checkdown and a backward pass, I still wouldn’t have been the right person for Eric, the same way he wasn’t ever going to be the right person for me.
When we were almost done dividing up assets, Eric’s attorney stated that Eric was seeking full custody of my dog.
“Wait! Time-out!” I said, jumping to my feet, making a T with my hands.
“There’s no time-out in divorce, Katie,” Eric said, turning his wrist to check a watch I’d never seen before: big and silver with an unmarked blue face.
“Whatever. Sidebar,” I said, tugging at Arnold Troyer’s sleeve.
Arnold grabbed his files and allowed me to drag him to the hallway. Once we were out of earshot from Eric’s bottle blond friend, I took a deep breath and said, “Bark is all I want.”
“What is Bark?”
“Barkimedes. My dog. I told you. Eric can have everything else, but I need my dog.”
“Let’s not be rash,” Arnold said, wiping his nose with a folded paper towel he’d pulled from his pocket. “Perhaps, if you’d be willing to share custody—”
“No! Eric hates Bark. He’s only doing this to pick at me. To prove a point he doesn’t have to prove. I get it. I know why he cheated. I know I was a shit wife. I just want my dog.”
Arnold thumbed through my file. “Is this dog a purebred? Show dog? Can we assign a cash value?”
“Does your best friend have a cash value?” I asked, my voice getting froggy as my throat tightened.
Arnold sighed, mopping at his head with the same paper towel. “I like to tell my clients not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.”
“I don’t want the forest,” I shouted, and then, surprised by the echo of my voice in the hall, I tried to take it down to a whisper, “or the house, or the stupid blender his mom gave us, or the baby clothes I bought too soon, or the ugly couch he probably screwed her on.” I pointed down the hall to the friend, who was still clicking away on her phone. “I want Bark and I want to start over. And I think it’s all he wants too; it’s just that this—this is the worst part of it.”
Eric needed to justify himself. The cheater doesn’t get to feel like they’ve been wronged, and that lack of acknowledgment was making him reckless, like a kid coloring on the walls in permanent ink. He cheated. I checked out. Neither of us was right, but I checked out long before he cheated. This was him, embarrassed, hurt, broken, saying, Look at what you made me do! Pay for what you made me do! React to me for fuck’s sake!
I wiped tears from my chin with my sleeve.
Arnold reached into his pocket and handed me another paper towel folded into four. I wondered if he sat around at night folding paper towels so he could have them at the ready. Why didn’t he carry tissues or a handkerchief like a normal person?
Arnold watched me while I blotted my eyes. His face softened. He leaned in close. “Is this really what you want?”
I nodded. Okay, Eric. I’m reacting. This is the end, and I’m fighting.
“Alright,” Arnold said, pulling his files to his chest. “Go to the ladies’ room, calm down, splash some water on your face. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you.” I blew my nose. It echoed.
“If I can get you more, I’ll get you more, but if all else fails we take the dog and call it a win.”
I ran down the hall, the high heels I almost never wore punctuating my retreat. In the bathroom, I ran cold water on my wrists and tried not to picture what it would feel like to hand Bark’s leash over to Eric.
I loved that dog from the second I saw him on the shelter website. He had a face like a German Shepherd, the bat ears of a Boston Terrier, and fluffy Chow fur that was spotted and dappled like a Border Collie. One of his eyes was the richest caramel brown, and the other was a clear bright blue. I needed desperately to save someone, and there he was—Dog 2357—waiting for rescue.
I made Eric drive us all the way to Syracuse to adopt him. We got there just in time. Bark was scheduled to be put down the next day.
Because he was from Syracuse, I thought naming him Barkimedes was hysterical. Eric didn’t get it. He wanted to name him Jeter. Plus, Bark ate the back of the passenger seat in Eric’s brand new BMW when we made a pit stop at a gas station on the way home, so right off the bat, Eric was not a Bark fan. It went downhill from there.
For all intents and purposes, Bark was my dog. Every morning I sat on the floor next to his bowl of kibble and drank my coffee with his ribs pressed against mine because it was the only way he’d eat his breakfast. I was the one who knew which patches of floor he was afraid of, and that you couldn’t use the stove without first closing him safely in the bedroom with three toys and his favorite blanket, and that when we went to work, he needed the radio tuned to NPR so he could listen to All Things Considered and feel less alone.
Eric didn’t know these things. He didn’t bother to learn. He didn’t take me seriously when I told him how Bark needed us to act around him. So the one time I left them alone to go to Florida for a funeral, I came back to find shirts shredded, a section of the rug chewed away, and a dog who probably hadn’t eaten in four days, cowering in a corner while a basketball game blared on the radio.
I had to believe that Eric was only posturing and he wasn’t really going to take my dog. And I had to believe that Arnold Troyer: Rochester’s Best Divorce Lawyer was at least slightly competent.
I dried my hands and smoothed my hair.
My phone buzzed.
A text from my grandmother: Over yet?
I wrote back: Almost.
I smiled and typed: Nan! So smug!
Grab freedom by the balls!
I laughed and looked in the mirror and stood up straight as if Nan had told me to. My cheeks were flushed and my eyes were starting to swell, but when I walked back down the hallway, I clacked my high heels against the marble floor like a statement.
Eric’s friend was still sitting on the bench outside the conference room. She had begun to wilt, eyeliner pooling under her eyes.
Suddenly, I felt sorry for her. If Arnold Troyer did his job, I would walk away with Bark, but she’d still be stuck with a cheater who clipped his toenails at the kitchen table and talked to his mother on the phone every single day.
“I’m Katie, Eric’s ex,” I said, reaching out my hand to shake hers.
She didn’t introduce herself, only mumbled hello in a voice that was softer than I expected. Her hand was cold and boney. There were rhinestones glued to her nails.
“He should be done soon,” I said, and then blurted out, “Nice to meet you.”
Nice to meet you. And it played in my head when I sat next to Arnold and signed by the X’s. Nice to meet you, woman who facilitated my husband’s escape from what I’d previously thought was a lifelong thing. Woman who left your hair clip in my living room like you were marking your territory. Woman who gave me the push I needed to start over. It’s nice to meet you.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Swimming for Sunlight includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allie Larkin. 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.
Aspiring costume designer Katie Ellis is at the end of her rope—her marriage has ended in a messy divorce, and she’s just agreed to give her ex-husband everything so she can keep their fearful, faithful dog: Barkimedes (“Bark”). Katie packs up a few remaining belongings in her beat-up old car and drives to Florida with Bark to live with her grandmother, Nan. She reconnects with her childhood best friend, Mo, and Nan’s circle of colorful friends.
Buoyed by the support of people who love her, Katie begins taking her mental health seriously. She reconnects with her love of costume design, fights her long-held fear of water, reignites a past romance, and finally finds the right way to be Bark’s best friend.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Throughout the first half of the book, there is not much description of what Katie looks like, although she observes a lot about what her grandmother and her friends look like. What does this say about Katie’s perception of herself?
2. On page 62, Katie reflects on how her smaller income created stress in her relationship with ex-husband, Eric. How do you view money in the context of long-term romantic relationships?
3. Nan and Katie begin to bond as Katie helps Nan reach out to old friends via Facebook—something Nan hasn’t previously used. Have you noticed a generational difference in how your friends and family use social media?
4. Have you ever reunited with a long lost friend? Was your connection still there? What changed since the last time you saw them? Have you kept in touch since your reunion?
5. The mermaid show gives Nan and Bitsie chance to reclaim an activity they loved when they were younger. Is there something you loved doing that has fallen by the wayside? Is it something you’d like to try again?
6. On page 148, Mo encourages Katie to see a therapist, but Katie doesn’t take it well. Has anyone in your group ever tried to help connect a friend with mental health resources? How did it go? How do you think Mo could have done things differently (or did she do a good job)?
7. Throughout the book, Katie has panic attacks, when she can’t control certain things. Can you think of times when she tries to micromanage aspects of her life that she can control?
8. What do you think of Katie’s relationship with Bark? How is her attention to Bark’s needs helpful, and how is it a coping mechanism?
9. Katie’s marriage to Eric was a mismatch. How do you think Luca would differ as a partner? What kind of partner do you think would be ideal for Katie?
10. Nan and Bitsie have fun telling Katie about their time as mermaid performers. Have any of your loved ones surprised you with an unexpected story from their past? Do you have stories people in your life would be surprised to hear?
11. In Chapter 40, when Woo Woo arrives, Bitsie worries about coming out to her. How do you think the experience of coming out later in life might differ from the experiences of people who come out at a younger age?
12. On page 260, As Katie is trying to get Hannah’s measurements, Hannah seems insecure about her weight and keeps trying to “suck in.” Katie thinks, “. . . it made me sad, because I had this idea that by the time you reach your seventies, the superficial pressures of being a woman would dissipate, and health would be all that mattered.” How has your perception of your appearance changed over time? Do you think you’ll feel differently about your body in the future? Growing up, how did the women in your life shape your ideas about body image and aging?
13. At the end of the book, Katie has learned to be more comfortable in her own skin. What changed to make this possible? What has she had to let go?
Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)
Note: Please make sure the numbers do not populate automatically.
1. Set up drawing or collage supplies (complete with sequins!) and have everyone design their own mermaid tail. Have each member talk about how their design represents aspects of their personality.
2. Read “The Last Mermaid Show” from The New York Times and discuss the allure of being a mermaid—from the early years until today.
3. Have a cocktail party that would make Nan proud! Serve “martoonis,” vegetable sushi and vegan canapés. Look for recipes on sites like ItDoesn’tTasteLikeChicken.com and Engine2Diet.com.
Bitsie’s Recipe for the perfect extra dry dirty martooni
1 ½ oz. Gin
A dash of dry vermouth
Swirl vermouth in the martini glass. Dump the excess. Vermouth is not the star of this show. Pour the gin into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Follow with a generous splash of olive juice. Shake and strain into a glass. Garnish with three or four cocktail olives. Don’t skimp. You deserve a snack.
A Conversation with Allie Larkin
What was your inspiration to start writing Swimming for Sunlight?
I was doing writing exercises every morning to generate ideas. I can’t remember the specific exercise that lead to it, but the line “My husband brought a date to our divorce” popped in my head and I was hooked. Katie and Bark showed up soon after, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Where did the idea of writing about mermaid performers come from?
As a kid, I obsessively loved swimming underwater, and I was fascinated by mermaids. The movie Splash was a big deal at the time, my local video story had an anime retelling of The Little Mermaid that closely followed the Hans Christian Andersen story, and I fell madly in love with a book called The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbit that had a mermaid named Ardis who lived in a lake.
I first read about mermaid performers at Weeki Wachee Springs at some point in my twenties, but if I had known about them as a child, being a mermaid would have been my ultimate aspiration.
When I started writing Nan, I had the idea that she’d become a fitness enthusiast, but it didn’t feel like enough of a story for her. I wanted to give her new endeavor deeper roots. Suddenly, Nan’s mermaid past started spinning in my mind, and it felt like something I’ve been gearing up for my whole life. I truly loved writing about women who found a way to return to their love of mermaids and underwater performance. Possibly, in part, because I’d like to believe it’s something I can still aspire to.
Who is the character of Nan based on? Did that person also go through a major health kick?
None of the characters I write are based on real people, but Nan’s health kick was inspired by my own quest to protect my heart health by switching to a whole food plant-based diet. I’ve been eating this way for several years now, and it has drastically changed my life and health for the better, but I also know how eye-roll inducing people talking about their diets can be. I decided to have a little fun at my own expense by turning Nan a militant vegan and making Katie very frustrated by this change. That said, I do take great joy in hacking recipes to make them meet my dietary needs, and I’ve made most of the foods Nan serves. Except for those terrible cookies.
Did your dog inspire any of Bark’s personality?
Stella, our German Shepherd, came to us at thirteen months and was an absolute terror. Through a lot of hard work, she eventually settled in and became a functional member of our family.
Then over the course of a year, we lost our other dog to cancer, our elderly cat passed away, and we made a cross-country move. The ways we’d taught Stella to cope were dependant on having animal buddies, a big yard, and a regular routine. Suddenly we were living in a different environment with different parameters, so Stella and I had to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to help her function in our new life. It also forced me to confront my anxiety issues, because she picks up on my nerves. I wanted to be better for Stella and it made me better for myself too.
Stella has taught me so much about bravery. She still has her jittery moments, but she’s gone from being afraid to leave the house to nudging me out the door for our two-mile walk every day.
How did you approach writing a community of characters in their retirement years?
I realized in an early draft of the book that to write Nan and Bitsie and their friends, I needed to cultivate a greater understanding of their formative experiences. I never had the opportunity to take women’s studies in college, so I decided to engineer my own crash course. I spent a summer reading and researching the history of the women’s movement and the ways women have been represented in pop culture over the years. It was fascinating, maddening, enlightening, heartbreaking, and deeply inspiring.
Katie seems to have shied away from the things she wanted most in an attempt to create a sense of safety. Can you relate to the way fear navigates her choices?
When I was in college the first time around, I was so afraid of failing. The idea of trying for something I might not get felt so horribly shameful, and I got very good at aiming just below what I thought I could achieve. Then after my sophomore year, I dropped out of college and promptly went out into the real world, where I fell flat on my face. Like, the life events equivalent of a woman belly-flopping when there had never even been a pool. At the time, it was horrible, but in the overall trajectory of my life, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I failed and I survived and I didn’t have to pretend to be perfect anymore. On the other side of that failure, it seemed way less scary to start trying for things that felt out of reach. Rejection didn’t scare me anymore.
Katie is just at the edge of that experience; she’s starting to get comfortable with the fact that playing it safe hasn’t gotten her the things a person needs to thrive.
As the story progresses, we learn that Katie is afraid of a lot of things. Do you identify with her struggles on a personal level? How did you figure out what Katie’s healing process should be?
I was a nervous little kid, and I headed into adulthood with anxiety issues. I think it’s one of the things that made me a writer, but training your brain for writing doesn’t necessarily help. Once you’ve taught yourself to always think about the “what ifs” it’s hard to stop. I finally got to a point where I was uncomfortable being uncomfortable and started seeking better ways to manage my mental health.
I consulted therapists and read as much as I could on trauma and anxiety. The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk is brilliant. I found The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman, so helpful on a personal level, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of stoic philosophy (which probably inspired some of Bitsie’s worldview).
Toward the end of Swimming for Sunlight, Bitsie says to Katie, “I know being okay is work, and there’s chemical parts and physical parts and it might be a long fight. But it’s a fight for something worth it, right?” There are so many variable personal elements involved in mental health issues, which means there aren’t cookie cutter answers. I wanted to be careful not to prescribe anything too specific for Katie’s recovery. It felt right to me to leave Katie at a place where there’s still work ahead of her, but she’s set up to succeed, and she’s finally fighting for herself.
The setting for Swimming for Sunlight is in Florida. How did that come about and what kind of research did you do to get the Florida “vibe” just right?
I spent time in Florida as a child, and was back a few years ago on vacation. I have a soft spot for that particular brand of suburbia and palm trees. Also, when we lived in Rochester, we were the newcomers in a neighborhood full of people who had built their houses in the 50’s and 60’s, and that was certainly an inspiration too.
This is your third book! How did writing it feel different than writing your first two?
This book feels very special because I’d had the idea and a vague outline for a while, but when it came time to kick it into gear, my friend Caroline Angell, (author of All the Time in the World) suggested we do a weekly call. We reported in on our work, talked through narrative problems and character development, and set goals for the next week. We called our calls Introvert Happy Hour, even though they very often strayed far beyond the hour mark. There’s something so meaningful to me about the way our friendship grew through nurturing each other’s work, and how that celebration of female friendship is echoed in the book.
How did you get your start as a writer? What specific moments and people along the way have encouraged you to keep going?
I grew up performing in summer camp plays and community theatre and first went to college as a drama major. I loved the work, even though I wasn’t always thrilled about being on stage. When I went back to college in my twenties, I took a few writing classes and felt like I’d finally found the right medium for my interests. But I draw on my theatre training constantly, especially when it comes to character development. I’m so thankful for that foundation, even though I didn’t realize what I was laying the groundwork for at the time.
After college, I joined a writing group in Rochester, and the camaraderie, the feedback, and the deadlines were vital to helping me stick with it. I also had the pleasure of attending the Titles Over Tea book club at the Greece, NY Barnes & Noble. Titles Over Tea is open to the public, which results in a group of book lovers of different ages who have had very different life experiences. I read novels I would never have read otherwise, and also had familiar books opened up in new ways through our discussion. It made me a better reader and a better writer. And I think also influenced some of the multigenerational relationships in this book. Moving away from my writing group and book club is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Now I’m in an online group of novelists, have critique partners who are constructive and inspiring, and I take weekly writer hikes with my friend Cassandra Dunn, (author of The Art of Adapting). Since the actual writing process is so solitary, connecting with the community of writers around me is vital. It truly is an honor to get to work with and root for other writers on this level. It’s an experience I cherish.