Sunday, June 14, 2020

Two (Very Different) Stories Rooted in Character and Place: Florence Adler Swims Forever (Beanland) and Final Cut (Watson)

Trying to catch up....or at least keep up...a bit. I think the mix of a longer review and one or two shorter ones is the way to go. (NB: Alright, in the end I seem to have written two reviews of similar length except the second lacks the plot summary included in the first. Maybe my next post will be a handful of shorter takes...).

Business first: I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. While the book was free, my review is my own and, as always, honest.

Most reviews hint at a tragedy that happens early in the book. A few name it, and I'll join them because it really does happen almost immediately and thus doesn't seem like a spoiler at all. Florence is home (Atlantic City, 1934) from college for the summer and training to swim the English Channel. She drowns during a solo practice session. Her family, mostly her mother, decide to keep this tragedy from Fannie, her older sister, who is pregnant and being carefully monitored in the hospital having suffered a late term miscarriage not long ago. Fannie's daughter, Gussie, a precocious eight-year-old, moves in with her grandparents rather than stay with her aloof father. She's moved from her usual spot at her grandparent's apartment because the grandfather has taken in Anna, a refuge from Germany and the daughter of a childhood friend who is hoping to attend college in the fall. The family is Jewish and the only main character who is not is Florence's swim coach, Stuart, who clearly always pined for the young woman he trained.

This is a book about characters, not action. After the initial tragedy, not a whole lot happens. If you've read even a handful of my reviews, you know I read for character so this is fine by me, but I know it is a turn off for some. The characters are developed in large measure by the author's decision to let most of them take turns as protagonists and sharing elements of their pasts. This isn't an unusual trick, but it can go wrong easily. 

I truly enjoyed this novel. Here, the author manages her chosen format with great skill, especially with so many different protagonists to manage and given that this is her first novel. I appreciate that the characters' religion is neither over- nor is simply a part of their background and it factors into but does not wholly govern their actions. The characters aren't perfect...some are more flawed than others, but no one is flawless. Gussie rang the least true for me; she didn't quite feel like a child, let alone a fairly young one. I really liked the depth of the mother's character in particular. Fannie's husband is also well-drawn -- he's the closest thing to a "bad guy" that we see, but he's still very much human and he seems aware of his flaws including his limitations as a father (and as a son).  The author also kept me rooted in the time and place without overdoing the growing threat in Europe; after all, the characters know only the wrongs they've begun to see, but they don't know what's to come (too often authors seem to forget that, especially when they set novels in the pre-WWII timeframe).

Solid 4 stars. Great summer book -- not fluff, but relatively easy to read in a lounge chair whether by the beach or in one's own backyard. 

While not my favorite genre, I can certainly enjoy a good thriller from time to time. There are elements of this one I liked, but each seems matched by one that didn't hold my interest. I enjoyed the looming questions about the events involving Daisy and Sadie, but couldn't come to care about the other missing girls (even after "meeting" the parents of one girl...their appearance seems to be intended to invest the reader in her story, but fell flat for me and I was rather bored by the plot line...). I was curious about what was going on with the two teen girls in the present, but couldn't care less about the main character's possible romance. I thought the author did a good job with the main character's limited memory and the ways it was triggered and how her past was revealed to her and to the reader. but the device of the film she's making about the town fell flat and it almost seemed like the author forgot it at times (more broadly, the setting was important but I never quite felt like I was taken to this small English village). I was ready to move on to another book well before actually finishing this one. I'm glad I stayed in it and saw some of the final twists, but even some elements of that (especially the role of a local woman in the plot) let me down.

Two and a half stars...I feel like rounding down is the more honest choice (in large part because it gives more weight to the times I've rounded three and a half down to three). I really don't like assigning less than three and a half, but also believe that the most useful reviews are honest and that being willing to assign a lower rating to one book makes it mean more when I give a higher rating). From certain glimpses of her ability to construct a story and build a character, I do think the author has a better book in's just my take, but I think she needs to focus on her main idea and add fewer tangents. This review is based on a copy of the book supplied free of charge by the publisher in exchange for my (obviously) honest thoughts.