Rachel Beanland’s debut novel opens in 1934 Atlantic City. It’s a blue-sky June day, and most of the Adler family is enjoying the beach: 7-year-old Gussie; Gussie’s grandparents Esther and Joseph; Anna, the young German Jewish woman the family has taken in; and Florence, Esther and Joseph’s younger daughter, a Wellesley College student and star swimmer. Florence is such a competitive swimmer that she’s training to swim the English Channel later that summer. One family member who is not on the beach is Fannie, Florence’s older sister and Gussie’s mom, who is pregnant and in the hospital on bed rest, determined not to lose this baby as she lost the last one.
By the end of the day, the Adler family’s world has changed forever. Florence inexplicably drowns, and Esther decides that the family must keep this secret from Fannie, for fear that Fannie will go into early labor. There will be no funeral, no sitting shiva, no outer mourning for Florence.
But that’s not the only secret in this family novel. Each character has reasons to hide something important, which in turn affects their own happiness and relationships. The novel rotates through the perspectives of Gussie, Esther, Joseph, Anna, Fannie, Fannie’s husband and Florence’s devoted young swim coach, Stuart. It’s an ambitious balancing act that occasionally requires a little double-checking as to whose point of view we’re following. As the novel moves forward through the summer, the stress of secrets increases the pressure on each of the characters.
Florence Adler Swims Forever beautifully brings to life Atlantic City in the 1930s, offering the sights, sounds and smells of the beach and the boardwalk, as well as the daily life of Atlantic City’s Jewish community. It also foreshadows, through refugee Anna’s plight, the coming catastrophe of the Holocaust.
Beanland loosely based the novel on the story of her great-great-aunt Florence, who, like Florence Adler, was a competitive swimmer who drowned off the coast of Atlantic City. It’s a worthy tribute and a satisfying historical family drama.