Clare Chambers' novel, Learning to Swim ranks very high on my list of favorite books to reread. It's the sort of story that if I happen to be reading it on the bus I'm likely to be so absorbed that I might miss my stop. Or that reading it on my lunch break means I'll be so involved in it that I lose track of time and get back to my desk a few minutes late. I read it several years ago, so the details (unsurprsingly) faded enough that I only had a vague sense of what happened in the story, and I couldn't tell what was going to happen next. I'd be reading and would think, "oh, yeah, that's right, now I remember". I flipped to the back to see how many pages there were (not to see how much I had left to read in order to hurry to finish it, on the contrary I didn't want it to end) and caught a glimpse of a line on the last page and was a bit bewildered. "Was the ending bittersweet when I read it before?" I thought to myself. 'Have I so completely forgotten things?" Well, I'm not going to tell you how it ends, happy, bittersweet or otherwise. This is one you really must read for yourself.
I'm a little hesitant to write about it, though I'm not sure why. Maybe because I do like it so much. It's a coming of age story and I have this fear I'll make it sound like one big silly cliché, which it isn't. Things aren't helped much by the cover illustration of my copy (I lifted the above cover from the web which is only slightly better), which makes it look sort of fluffy and mindless and it doesn't really bear much in common with the actual story. The blurb on the cover calls it "as witty as Barbara Trapido and as wickedly comic as Kate Atkinson", both authors I highly respect, and I think I have to agree with the comparison. I suppose it could be called a comfort read, but it's an intelligent and well written comfort read. Aside from being an excellent coming of age story, it's about family and friendship, as well as love and second chances. Chambers is an excellent writer, and the story is funny and clever, but never in an obnoxious, self-conscious way that clever books can sometimes be.
I'm not entirely sure I can explain why I love this book so much. I think I'm drawn to the characters who are likeable though far from perfect--the sort of people I wouldn't mind knowing in real life. I can also relate to the period Chambers writes about (the same time I was growing up) as well as the feelings and emotions she describes--the isolation of being a bit outside of things (especially outside the popular group in school) and then finding a friend/soulmate who really helps open up the world and makes you feel not so alone anymore. The book begins in the present, sort of near the end of the story and then goes back in time to fill in the gap. Abigail Jex is a cellist who chances upon Marcus Radley, the brother of a childhood friend, who she's not seen for more than a decade, at a charity concert.
"'Thirteen years,' we replied simultaneously, without needing any time for totting up. The ghost of a smile was gone. We were both remembering the occasion of our last meeting: the heat in the chapel; the schoolgirl soprano breaking the last of us down; the windy graveside. There was a moment's awkward silence, then in a determined effort to get the conversation on safer ground, he said, 'You're a professional cellist now, then?' I nodded. 'That's good--good you kept it up'."
The awkward moment belies the fact that Abigail was once an almost permanent fixture at the Radley household. Just when Abigail needed a friend most in school, Frances Radley showed up and the two became fast, if somewhat unlikely, friends. An only child, Abigail's parents are traditional and conservative and maybe just a little boring. There are always people coming and going in the Radley household and the family is flamboyant and bohemian, a natural draw for Abigail. Abigail harbors a secret crush on Marcus, or Rad as he's called. Being older than the girls, Rad is naturally off doing his own thing, and Abigail never lets on, but it doesn't stop her from becoming a part of the family otherwise.
I think I've forgotten what it's like to be a child. They know more than we think. I'm amazed sometimes what my ten-year-old niece will come up with. I wonder where on earth she learns things sometimes? And kids notice more than we think as well. No matter how firmly buried family secrets may be, sooner or later there's an epiphany and they all come to light. And that's what happens to Abigail. And then a chain of events is set in motion that ends in tragedy and the end of a friendship. And this unexpected meeting between Abigail and Rad years later brings all her old feelings to the fore. And then she tells us her story--one I couldn't put down either time.
I already know I will reread this book yet again, so I didn't bother to go and find it a place on my bookshelves, but it remains in a pile by my bedside. And I've got Clare Chambers' book, In a Good Light at the ready. I read it about the same time as I did Learning to Swim and am ready for a reread. I think I liked it equally as much, though I'll put a few books in between the two. I know I should read one of her other books, like The Editor's Wife, which I have on hand, but I have this fear it won't live up to my expectations set by her earlier novels.
Is it just me or do you have a favorite novel you could read over and over again and never tire of?