National Jewish Book Award Winner for Debut Novel
Florence Adler Swims Forever
By Rachel Beanland (Simon & Schuster)
The evocatively titled Florence Adler Swims Forever, recent winner of the 2020 National Jewish Book Award for best debut fiction, combines love and heartbreak, family secrets and moral dilemmas in a sprightly and engaging novel inspired by a real event in the family history of its author, Rachel Beanland.
Set in the honky-tonk milieu of 1930s Atlantic City, New Jersey’s summer playground, the story begins with the shocking and unexplained drowning of Florence Adler. The 20-year-old Jewish college student was an award-winning swimmer and, during her summer break, decided to train to swim the English Channel. Florence’s mother, Esther, conceals Florence’s death from Fannie, her elder daughter. Fannie has been hospitalized due to a high-risk pregnancy and the overprotective matriarch fears the news may cause her to miscarry.
There’s a minimal funeral, no shiva and no outward mourning. Esther swears the entire family to secrecy, even getting the local newspaper to omit the victim’s name in a story about the drowning.
As Beanland explains in an author’s note, her own great-great-aunt, Florence Lowenthal, tragically drowned, and the death was kept from her then-pregnant sister, Beanland’s great-grandmother. The shadows of the author’s family tragedy lend a touch of authenticity to the story as do her colorful descriptions of iconic Atlantic City landmarks: Ventnor Avenue, One Atlantic at the end of the Million Dollar Pier, Absecon Lighthouse. “Lights were strung from one side of the Boardwalk to the other,” she writes, “and the effect was dazzling—like a blanket of stars had been hung.”
As well-meaning as Esther’s efforts may be, the evasions and denials raise issues for all the Adlers as well as several other characters, whose perspectives and stories are related in alternating chapters. In addition to Esther and Fannie, there’s Esther’s husband, Joseph, owner of a thriving bakery who agrees to the deception but is reluctant to step foot in a hospital to visit his pregnant daughter; Fannie’s scheming and uncaring husband, Isaac; and 7-year-old Gussie, their precocious and inquisitive daughter. Also affected are Stuart, Florence’s close friend and swim coach, and 19-year-old Anna, who is staying with the family for the summer. Joseph helped Anna, the daughter of a childhood friend, emigrate from Nazi Germany.
Romance, intrigue and secrets lurk behind each character as each of them navigates his or her grief.
Stuart had been in love with Florence and is becoming close to Anna. Anna, who roomed with Florence, is working to bring her parents to America. She usurps Florence’s place in the Adler family, borrowing her swimsuit and getting swimming lessons from Stuart, even acting as something of a big sister to Gussie. Wise Little Gussie, who understands that her beloved aunt has died and knows not to tell her mother, dreams about marrying good-looking Stuart. Meanwhile, Fannie, sequestered in a private room without radio, telephone or newspaper, frequently questions her mother about her “silent” sister. Esther’s evasive answers and the lack of information two months after Florence’s death strain credulity.
Still, with its dramatic storyline and insight into American Jewish life in the 1930s, Florence Adler Swims Forever is an emotional, yet uplifting, read.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.