Into this heated atmosphere glides Aaron’s girlfriend, Suzanne, whose presence is threatening, exciting; Lila thrills to the ominous quality of Aaron’s absolute adoration for this young woman. Before her visit is over, Suzanne will unleash the forces of rage between Aaron and Jack, compelling one brother to commit an act against the other that can never be taken back.
A decade later, living in New York, Lila still searches for Aaron, who disappeared that night, and Suzanne, whose mystique still exerts a hold on her memory. For Lila to move past her family’ s tragedy, she must piece together what happened that fateful weekend–and recover the things lost down by the water–before she can at last let them go.
A stunning literary novel that captures the lingering effects of longing and loss, Swimming is by turns a gripping family story, a heartbreaking coming of age journey, and a suspenseful psychological investigation into the meaning and limits of fidelity, identity, and intimacy.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Joanna Hershon's A Dual Inheritance.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There is no such thing as silence in the woods. Vivian Silver trusted
this, as she followed the man she'd met only hours ago down the pine-dark
path of his property. She watched his lean figure and became hypnotized by
his uneven gait, the majesty of his long narrow back. He hadn't once
turned around to make sure that she'd kept up, and this did not surprise
her. Just as she knew that there was no such thing as silence in the
woods, she also somehow trusted that as carefully as she was watching him,
he was listening even more carefully for her quick footfalls and the
high-pitched swish of her navy blue windbreaker. She could feel him
listening, and that was good enough.
She walked on and heard skitters of invisible creatures, the wind through
the thinning pines. There was a sense of clarity that accompanied the
quiet, and this was something Vivian already knew to look for in a man.
When one held back from her, she couldn't help but pay attention.
The path finally opened up into a clearing, and because the sun had just
set, the land-his land-was the darkest of greens, a shade brought on by
October in New Hampshire when the day holds on to the richness of color
even when light is gone.
There in the distance, just as he'd promised, was a pond.
She couldn't quite see the water. He was blocking her view with his body,
but she could smell the wet sand and fallen leaves, the swampy, reedy
darkness. And although it was unquestionably autumn, Vivian could feel the
brazen heat of summer, the lovely shock of a dive. She could also hear the
slice of blades on ice, the scrape and shriek of skating. On sensing this
body of water, she briefly forgot why she was here. Then a distinct shift
took place inside of her as he placed his hand-as if he'd done so
countless times-under her long tangled hair. He still hadn't said a word.
Here was a feeling both thrilling and disappointing, as if someone had
just informed her that the world was about to end. Her neck was cold and
his hand was warm. It was the first time they had touched.
Vivian was saving money to sail away to Spain. She was substitute teaching
and writing poetry while staying with her brother Aaron. That night Aaron
sent her to Cal's Bar, where he knew the bartender. Aaron knew a lot of
bartenders for someone
who didn't drink. He knew everybody in Portsmouth. Only months later,
having decided not to go to Canada, he would
die a reluctant private in a Vietnam helicopter accident; the funeral in
their Massachusetts hometown would be so crowded that his pregnant sister
wouldn't recognize half of the people there. Her first son would be his
namesake. She would name him Aaron and pray, like any mother, that he
would not die young.
But she knew none of this that evening, when she sat alone at Cal's Bar,
drinking a bottle of beer. She had been aware of Jeb Wheeler's presence
since he'd walked through the door in worn jeans, a workshirt, and a red
down vest. She guessed he was at least thirty-five. He was very tall and
thin with a long crooked nose, full lips, and arresting green eyes. It was
his eyes that
she noticed first. There was something wrong with them. She tried not to
stare as he sat down beside her and ordered a rare hamburger. She tried
not to stare but soon became acutely aware that he was the one who was
staring. And he wasn't shy about it either.
"Hello," he said.
"Oh, hi." She smiled and looked into his eyes that were strange. As one
moved normally in the socket, the other stayed quite still. While his
pupils were the same light green color
and were framed by the same long dark lashes, the left eye appeared to be
made of glass. It was foreign and would stay foreign. She'd never quite
get used to it.
"I've never been here," she said, just to say something.
But he wasn't like that. He kept on looking at her and smiling. Finally he
said, "Well, I'm glad you're here now."
She told him what there was to tell about herself, how she'd graduated
from college and was leaving for Spain in the springtime. She tried to
keep it brief and ended up drinking her beer too quickly. He didn't ask
many questions and the ones he did ask were blunt: Why Spain? What will
you do for money once you're there? Have you noticed my eye yet?
He had lived in New York City and worked as a chemist. In
a slightly suspect explanation of how he'd ended up here-
looking like a lumberjack or possibly a carpenter-Vivian learned that he
had sold something, a patent of sorts, and that he had quit his job.
"What do you do now?" she asked, leaning into him, not completely aware
she was doing so. She could smell woodsmoke on his clothes, the faint
toxic smell of varnish.
"Well," he said, smiling, as if he somehow wasn't quite sure what to say,
"I bought land. I bought some fine land, and I've been building myself a
"Where is it?" Vivian asked. She pictured herself on top of him on a spare
iron bed, being cold and even lonely and asking him to build a fire. She
didn't bother trying to stop fantasizing. She knew herself better than
"It's about forty-five minutes from here," he said, and raised his
eyebrows. "Kind of out there." He gave her a look as if to say, I dare you.
When he was through with his burger, they left together. He opened the
passenger door of his truck for her.
He said, "You don't need to worry; I'm not very dangerous."
Until that moment, the thought hadn't crossed her mind.
And now they were in a forest clearing between his half-built house and
the pond. Pine needles covered the loamy ground, and sycamores framed the
sky. They weren't looking at each other. As he moved his hand very gently
along the back of
her pale neck, she found she was straining to see the pond-
over his shoulder, beyond the trees-as if to see the black-green water
would be to inhabit the sense of certainty that she knew water created.
But from where she stood, the water was not much more than a ghost in the
trees watching and assessing this union.
Vivian reached out to touch him, letting him know right away where she
stood. Under the down vest, his denim shirt was hot. She rested her hand
there as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
"Beautiful," she finally said. The trees moved so slightly. The sky was
full of stars.
"You are," he told her, and, taking her pale face in his two rough hands,
he kissed her.
A kiss can be as minuscule as a moth or the tiny flame it craves, a torn
fingernail or an eyelash; and yet a kiss can be huge. It can be as
expansive and dangerous as this one was. It can be the origin of a family.
They kissed softly and tenderly at first, and then things
got rougher. As the clear sky became clearer and darker, they grabbed hold
of each other's clothing. They kissed hard, almost bitterly, as if they
resented their mutual attraction.
They were both impatient people. They'd wage battles against impatience
all their lives, but not tonight. Tonight they did exactly what they
They didn't even make it to the house. Without any debate, she lay down on
the cold damp grass. She wasn't taking birth control pills and he didn't
use a rubber, and-as if it were a dream and she was using dream logic-she
found she knew exactly what she was doing without any fear of
Vivian watched for the pond over his shoulder but couldn't see a thing;
the promise of a pond sat under the moon and stared at her boldly,
watching her gasp for breath. She thought of Spain with a kind of
nostalgia: it seemed smaller than before and awfully far away. She said
goodbye to Cordoba and Sevilla, adios to flamenco and paella.
He breathed in her ear and she kissed his long, stubbled neck.
"I can't believe we just did that," he told her. But she knew that he was
"Let me show you the house," Jeb said, after gently taking her hand in his
and heading for the path. When he kissed her again, she felt a surge of
greed and strained to see the water. "What?" he asked.
He was close to her, leaning down to see her face. She could smell the
varnish and the brackish smell of his sweat. It was purely carnal and she
backed away from him-head tilted, coy-as if she had a secret.
"What?" he repeated.
She retreated some more-a come-and-catch-me set of eyes, an attempt at a
wicked smile. The water was so close just beyond the stand of trees and
weeds, and-with a toss of her hair, having barely a notion of what she was
As she expected, he did not run after her. Vivian was now free to get as
near to the water as possible, to trample over the fallen wet reeds and
feel her boots sink into the sand. The wind blew and the pond came to her,
slowly lapped at her boot toes in a lazy, ancient rhythm. The moon shone
down in a harsh slant, casting the pond as particularly separate from the
soil and the trees and from her. She felt younger out here in this untamed
space, and-as if she were being watched, as if the pond itself were
judging her-she stood up straighter as she surveyed the landscape. She
took a deep clean breath.
Jagged rocks began a few yards to her left. Smooth slabs framed the water,
flat as if they'd been carefully beaten down. Dried-out grass stood tall,
interspersed with endless weeds.
She wouldn't have changed a thing.
The pond wore its surroundings like careless attire, as if to protect its
luminous beauty. Its surface shimmered, innocent of the forest's tall
shadows or the mountains' cranky terrain. The water divulged nothing, and
she couldn't help but bend down and touch it with her fingertips. It felt
brutally cold, and she put her fingers in her mouth at once, sucking back
some comfort from herself. Vivian gazed at the water and there it was-her
reflected self, round as an infant but twice the size. Then, quick as
lightning, the distorted shape was gone as a dark cloud shrouded the moon.
Here was where she would make her life. Over years to come she would swim
and sunbathe, take walks with Jeb and the children, take time alone with
her thoughts. She would eat potluck meals here, engaging in terrific
conversations with neighbors who would move away. And later in life, after
drinking too much, she would come straight to the slabs of rock by the
water's edge and she would sit-her mouth parted, too tired for
wonder-staring at the water for hours.
This was where her future would unfold. Later she'd say she knew it right
then and without a single doubt. She would tell her sons and daughter that
she just knew it, the same way she knew that Spain was only a single
country on so many maps of the world.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does the title suggest, and what varieties of "swimming" are involved in the action? How does the swim at the story's start contrast with the plunge at the end?
2. Do the three epigraphs (from Marilynne Robinson, Emily Dickinson, and Martin Buber) constitute a kind of progression for the three parts? How does Dickinson's phrase in particular"The truth must dazzle gradually"describe the story line?
3. Twenty-one years elapse between the action of the Prologue and Part One, and ten years elapse between Part One and Two. Parts Two and Three, however, are directly sequential. What is the author telling us about the presence of the past and the healing passage of time?
4. Can you come up with reasons for the brothers' sibling rivalry? Why are they so angry with each other, and is Suzanne a kind of lightning rod for the trouble that erupts between them, or is she the trouble itself?
5. What motivates Pria's behavior? In what ways does she change between the first and second time we meet her, and do you feel she's trying to atone for her actions at the party and on the night of Jack's death? 6. The same question could well be asked of Suzanne. How sympathetic is the author to this character/ seductress? Why is it, do you think, that she's willing to acknowledge Lila during that first meeting in New York?
7. Both Lila and Aaron have the habit of calling their parents and then hanging up. What does this tell us about the nature of communication in the Wheeler clan?
8. We know what's under Sylvie's bed and what the red box contains. What would Aaron (as David Silver) have of hers under his own bed?
9. In what ways is this a time-bound piece (describing the nature of the counter-culture in the 1980s, the drug culture in the 1990s, etc.), and in what ways does the family dynamic exist outside of a specific time and place?
10. Imagine Swimming as a set of linked short stories or as a movie or play. What would be gained and what lost?
11. Why does Lila disguise herself as Abby in her brother's house? What causes her to come out of hiding and reveal herself at last?
12. Is it realistic that a brother would not know his sister after a decade of growth? And why should Lila recognize a woman she's seen only once, when she herself was eight years old at the time, and who now has spent ten years thereafter in New York City?
13. Describe a day in 1967 in which Jeb and Vivian Wheeler are alone in the house he has built and to which she moves when they're first married. Describe the same day in 1997 when they are alone in the house once morewith one of their three children dead and the other two away.
14. Imagine the visit to Portsmouth from Ben's point of view. Why does he get so angry at Lila when she says she needs to run an errand by herself?
15. Imagine the scene when Suzanne returns to her husband after she tells Lila what happened on the fateful night in 1987. What does she tell Richard and how does he respond?
16. If this novel had been told in the first person, who would be its likely narrator and why?
17. In what ways does the scene of the party at the lake outside Ann Arbor (Part Three) repeat what happened at the party in the Wheelers' pond (Part One)? Look for variations on the theme and what those changes might mean.
18. "The water was blue and the sky was pink and the trees flourishing green. 'Are you okay?' she said. He said he was full of awe." This climactic moment at the end of Chapter Twenty-five is a scene of rebirth and redemption, clearly. To what extent is it also, in the formal sense, religious? Is Aaron's time in Israel and his shelf of Biblical texts directly relevant here?
19. What will happen when Aaron goes home and arrives at the house once again?
20. These were nineteen questions. Formulate twenty more.