By Michelle Brafman (www.michellebrafman.com)*
[Editor’s note: Below is a review by Michelle Brafman of a new book by J.H. Diehl called “Tiny Infinities”, which is set in a fictitious Montgomery County Swim League (MCSL) community pool.]
TINY INFINTIES by J.H. Diehl
(Chronicle Books, May 2018)
TINY INFINITIES by J.H. Diehl is a novel for young readers that opens with a gorgeous ode to the backstroke. Washington D.C. area swimmers of all strokes, however, will relate to this story set in a fictitious Chevy Chase community pool during the summer when MCSL freestyler Alice Allyn flips over on her back to “race between walls she cannot see.”
There is no shortage of walls for Alice to scale in this compelling summer read. The book opens the night Alice’s father and twin brothers move out of the house. Her mother, angry and depressed as a result of a car accident, has not left her bed for months, and Alice’s troubles have alienated her from her carefree friends. In effort to glue her family back together, Alice pitches a tent in her backyard, pledging that she will live outside until her father and brothers return home.
Amidst the chaos of her family life, Alice clings to the familiar: summer swimming. Despite her “crummy” anatomy and ill-timed May birthday, she is determined to see her name up on the team record board in her new 13-14 age group. Enter Harriet, a Minnesota transplant and math and science whiz, who convinces Alice that statistically, becoming a backstroker will give Alice the best shot at attaining her goal. Not only does Alice break the team medley relay record, but she makes the All Star meet. How? By adhering to the adage: always bring your suit to the relay carnival. When a teammate gets sick, Alice slides right into a key backstroke slot. After the tenth time she checks the board for her new record, Alice muses, “At any moment life could give you what you most hoped for, even it came by accident.”
Diehl, a former swim mom and veteran of the MCSL world, gets the tiniest details of summer swimming right: the cheers that make no sense, the way the light hits the water at 6:30 a.m., coaches donning crazy costumes, the politics of sharing a lane, the extended All Star season, the minutiae of the MCSL relay rules, the swim team banquet awards, and more. From these details emerge the larger truths about summer swimming, sports, and life.
Like many swimmers, the pool, or, according to Alice, the “blue rectangle that holds up her body,” is a place where she can sort through the problems: “Whatever is on your mind, even if it feels like a ton, you don’t stop moving your arms and legs and let it sink you. You count on the water, and when you turn, you can depend on the walls to help you push you back in the opposite direction.” Wise Harriet offer other pearls that transcend the pool, “Good fortune takes preparation . . . if you try, you open up the possibility of succeeding.”
Through the haze of her confusing summer, Alice also discovers a truth about how little control she has over other people’s behavior. Harriet sullies her All Star dreams; the parents of a child she babysits reprimand her for overstepping, and her mother completely quits mothering. She can’t change Harriet’s plans, sleeping in a tent doesn’t bring her father home, and she comes to terms with the fact that, “No chores I did, no food I cooked, no words I said were going to fix Mom.”
TINY INFINITIES is not only chock full of truths, but it’s funny and hopeful. And toward the end of the novel, Alice suggests that swimming the backstroke may indeed direct us to our true north, “Every time I swam the backstroke now, I felt the sky expanding overhead with no limits. It seemed like you could go anywhere. At the same time, you could count on where you were going too.” Perhaps the same could be said about this beautifully crafted novel.
* Michelle Brafman (www.michellebrafman.com) is a writer, teacher, and swim mom. She is the author of “Washing the Dead” and “Bertrand Court” and is hard at work on a third novel set in a fictitious local summer swim league.