Learning to Swim

Abigail Onions was something of a misfit at school. She had trouble with a bully and didn’t have a lot of friends. For years, her only friend was not someone she especially liked, just someone willing to spend time with her. But then Frances Radley came to her school, and Abigail had a new friend and a new family. The chaos of the bustling Radley household was a change from the quiet tension of Abigail’s home. And, at Frances’ house, there was always the hope of getting to see her older brother, Rad.

This book by Clare Chambers is a slow-moving story of growing up and falling in love and then losing that love. From the start, there are signs of great drama, but the actual events are slow to emerge. We know, for instance, that Abigail lost contact with the Radleys and had some strong feelings about it because the book begins with adult Abigail seeing Rad for the first time in decades. As Abigail tells her story, there are also hints about secrets within both the Radley family and her own family.

Chambers takes her time setting up what kind of person Abigail is, what her friendship with Frances is like, and what the Radley home feels like before the events that caused Abigail to lose touch. For me, the scene setting before the unraveling was a bit too slow. I usually don’t mind a slow narrative, but in this case, I wasn’t really clear what kind of book I was reading and what the nature of the events to come might be, which made it harder for me to maintain interest. For a while, it was a coming of age story, then it’s a romance, but there are hints of dark psychological drama. And it is all of these things to some degree. (It actually won the Romantic Novel of the Year award from the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, so there’s that.)

Even with the slowness, I did end up enjoying this book. I especially liked the present-day storyline that frames the narrative. For most of the book, Chambers immerses readers in young Abigail’s perspective, and seeing her (and her peers) stepping back later and reconsidering their views was pleasant. It’s not that their big feelings in their youth weren’t warranted. They were! But they were also feelings that could evolve over time, and I liked seeing that.

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2 Responses to Learning to Swim

  1. Ruthiella says:

    Romance is my bugbear…but dark psychological drama and coming of age? Yes please. This sounds like an interesting mix. And I don’t mind slow if it is interesting getting there!

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