Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: Night Swim

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Sarah Kunitz lives in a posh suburban world of 1970 Boston. From the outside, her parents' lifestyle appears enviable -- a world defined by cocktail parties, expensive cars, and live-in maids to care for their children -- but inside their five-bedroom house, all is not well for the Kunitz family. Coming home from school, Sarah finds her well-dressed pill popping mother lying disheveled on their living room couch. At night, to escape their parents' arguments. Sarah and her older brother, Peter, find solace in music, while her two younger brothers retreat to their rooms and imaginary lives. Any vestige of decorum and stability drains away when their mother dies in a car crash one terrible winter day. Soon after, their father, a self-absorbed, bombastic professor begins an affair with a younger colleague. Sarah, aggrieved, dives into two summer romances that lead to unforeseen consequences. In a story that will make you laugh and cry. Night Swim shows how a family bound by heartache, learns to love again. -- The Fiction Studio

I have seen some pretty powerful reviews about the new novel NIGHT SWIM by Jessica Keener from some well-respected critics and reviewers over the past few months, so I thought I might give it a try. Plus, the book's description definitely appealed to me. I grew up in a pretty normal family (or at least I think I did), and my childhood was pretty uneventful. Not that I crave drama in my personal life, but I think the normalcy of my life makes me love books about dysfunctional people. And NIGHT SWIM is definitely a story about one very messed-up family.

But it's also a very well-written story about a dysfunctional bunch of people, and it really was a treat to read. NIGHT SWIM is written in the voice of Sarah, a sixteen-year-old girl in a family of boys. Her father is pretty much a selfish jerk and her mother is a pill popper and absent from her life. When her mother ends dies in a car accident, the family's life is drastically and forever changed. Sarah's father takes up with a much younger co-worker, her brothers all cope in different ways, and Sarah (who was previously a "good girl") begins reaching out to boys for comfort. I found this family's, and especially Sarah's, story to be incredibly sad; and it broke my heart in many places.

While there are a fair amount of books about dysfunctional families and families who are dealing with loss, NIGHT SWIM manages to stand out. I think that's a huge testament to Ms. Keener's writing style. Her prose is exquisite and she did a remarkable job of creating some very complex characters. I especially found the character development of Sarah to be very well done. While I have never experienced anything even close to what the Kunitz family did, NIGHT SWIM still resonated with me. I have to think it's because all of the scenes were so real, and the characters just seemed authentic. I swear this novel read as if it could have been a true story.

I'm not sure that this novel would be classified as a traditional coming-of-age story, but I do think, in many ways, that's exactly what this story was -- Sarah's coming-of-age tale. Sarah is at an age where she desperately needed a mother's love and advice, and instead, she was forced to grow up almost entirely on her own. She eventually found her way, but it wasn't always an easy road and she most definitely learned some difficult lessons along the way. Thank goodness, she had the stable influence of music in her life because I think she proved just how powerful music can be as a healing mechanism.

There were a number of things that I appreciated about NIGHT SWIM, but one of the best things that I can say is that it made me feel. Time and time again, I found that Ms. Keener captured the essence of a family in crisis. The pain of these characters just oozed through the pages of this book, and I felt as if I truly got an inside look into this family. I felt these characters' ups-and-downs, and I almost laughed and cried with them. NIGHT SWIM was just one of those novels where the characters get under your skin... in a good way.

Because the characters are so interesting, I think NIGHT SWIM would make a terrific book club pick. I wasn't able to find a reading guide, but Ms. Keener is available for Skype talks and you can email her to get the discussion questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include love, family dynamics, mental illness, grief, loss, sibling relationships, self-discovery, and music. I have not doubt that many groups will enjoy discussing this very complex family.

Overall, I enjoyed NIGHT SWIM a great deal. It is a touching story about a family trying to cope with a loss and I think you'll be extremely impressed with the writing. Definitely recommended for fans of books about dysfunctional families.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this novel.


Beth F said...

I totally agree that this is not a traditional coming-of-age story but still kind of fits the genre. In a way it was a mother/daughter story.

I'm glad you liked it as much as I did.

Serena said...

Wow, this sounds like an emotional book with a nice coming-of-age theme. Thanks for the review.

bermudaonion said...

Any book that makes you feel emotions (good or bad) is well written, in my opinion. I love to read about dysfunctional families too, so this sounds good to me.

Sandy Nawrot said...

My barometer is whether it makes my stomach hurt! ha! I think in many genres...murder mysteries, WWII novels, dysfunctional family novels...there are so many of them that they have to really try hard to be different. Otherwise you will never remember them in a week or two. i've heard nothing but good about this one.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Generally I'm pretty tired about books about dysfunctional families, although I guess most families probably are, and what would there be to write about if everyone were happy? Still, it gets frustrating because you want to fix everyone! LOL

Anonymous said...

I liked this one more than I expected. A book about a dysfunctional family usually wins me over though!

Karlie said...

I haven't read about a dysfunctional family in a while so this might be worth checking out.

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

The synopsis of the book didn't really appeal to me but your review makes this book now stand out.