John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize 2020: Florence Adler Swims Forever

By Rebecca Kightlinger

NBCC members: If you’d like to contribute a review of an eligible book for the 2020 Leonard Prize, write to NBCC board member Megan Labrise at Read the rest of the reviews here.

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland (Simon & Schuster)

Atlantic City, 1934. On a fine June day, Florence Adler, training to swim the English Channel, dives into the ocean and disappears beneath the waves. Left on the beach are her parents, Esther and Joseph; her adoring young niece, Gussie; and a young German woman named Anna, who is staying with the Adlers while Joseph helps her negotiate the Byzantine immigration process. As Esther and Joseph bury Florence, they spin an elaborate deception intended to shield their other daughter, Fannie, pregnant and at hospital bedrest, from the tragic news. The secrets and lies insulate Fannie but eventually cocoon the entire Adler family.
The story’s setting further smothers them: Esther, Joseph, Gussie, and Anna are ensconced in a tiny apartment, Gussie sleeping in its hot, sometimes suffocating, sunporch, while Fannie is tucked away in a hospital room and her ne’er-do-well husband, Isaac, lives alone, his own lies and shifty business dealings further isolating him from the family.
It is Stuart, Florence’s friend and swim coach, who brings in light and fresh air. Though he keeps the Adlers’ secret, he lives outside their cocoon. His easygoing nature and his work as a lifeguard shifts both mood and setting from gloom to daylight. As co-founder of a club that includes only him, Anna, and Gussie, he helps Gussie keep track of the family’s “story” and forms ties with Anna that promise to bring her and the Adlers through their terrible ordeals.
Ensemble stories like this, with eight fully developed, intertwining main characters, can become unwieldy; but Beanland’s narrative, cleverly divided by timeline and character, flows beautifully, allows for enriching backstory, and draws the reader into an intimate family drama based on the life and tragic death of the author’s great-great-aunt, Florence Lowenthal. A lovely story, skillfully created. A triumph. Highly recommended.

This review was originally published in the Historical Novels Review.