Post authored by Jean Diehl via Goodreads: “Swimming with Ghosts”
SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS by Michelle Brafman is a smart, sassy perfect-for-summer read. Kristy Weinstein and Gillian Cloud are suburban moms and BFFs so in sync that people call them Krillian. For ten summers they’ve reigned as the go-to parent duo in charge of the River Run Manta Rays swim team during “the ten-week-long, adrenaline-saturated cocoon that is community summer swimming.” Until the summer of 2012, when the entire Washington DC-Metro area is hit by a derecho – and a furor of taboo-breaking “ghosts” surfaces from each woman’s past. The devastating storm, a land hurricane, is an apt metaphor for this fast-paced novel, filled with Brafman’s amusing and meticulously observed details of contemporary life, and her nuanced observations about the havoc that addiction and long-suppressed trauma can wreak on families.
The book opens with a snapshot of a beloved Manta Rays tradition, a Pasta Pep Rally dinner on the night before a dual meet: “A typical June Friday night: lifeguard whistles, ice cream truck music, and the occasional ‘My turn next!’ from a kid waiting in line at the diving board.” Krillian has organized the parent volunteers who create this summer idyll. The two women are also devoted to the respective lives they’ve built with their husbands, teen and college-aged kids, all four of whom have grown up swimming on the team. But for all their marks of conventional family and lifestyle success, Kristy and Gillian are haunted, too, by dysfunctional childhood experiences they haven’t fully dealt with or shared.
Quickly – like the swan dive that repeats as a motif through the novel – Brafman plunges them and us headfirst into 2012 and upends just about every measure of equilibrium except the Manta Rays redoubtable swim team schedule. In short sections – from a single paragraph to five or six pages – the narrative alternates four points of view: Kristy, Gillian, Gillian’s husband Charlie, and their son Justin, a college student home for the summer who is an assistant coach on the team.
Summer swimming anchors this story, and in a way you could say Swimming With Ghosts is a book about anchors. It’s a portrait of a foundational phenomenon of many modern American childhoods: the parents who help to organize their kids’ activities, with a goal of creating supportive environments for learning skills and experiencing cooperation, competition, winning and losing. When Gillian’s husband Charlie loses the dead-end job he hated anyway, for example, he steps forward to take over the job of coaching the Manta Rays full-time. We see the pure joy of Charlie’s self-discovery in his new role, and his talent for inspiring his swimmers to unexpected bests.
Charlie’s transformation highlights the need for the Manta Rays to adapt to change, which Gillian resists. Tension over which traditions to preserve and which to jettison spills into Gillian and Charlie’s marriage, eventually sinking them to the story’s deeper-lying anchors. It’s not giving away spoilers to say these include Gillian’s haunting memories of growing up with her alcoholic father, and Kristy’s loops of destructive compulsive behavior. Brafman sets things up early, so that in the book’s most shocking moments, when the extreme weather intensifies – both externally and internally – what happens feels organic to the story.
One of the great pleasures of reading Swimming With Ghosts is Brafman’s talent for rendering her characters’ outrageous transgressions believable by grounding them deftly in mundane, relatable detail – like the “tiny rip in the lace of a bra strap” that catalyzes Gillian’s recognition of her friend’s betrayal. It’s a detail made all the more resonant because the reader can put it together with what Brafman has given us of Kristy’s side of the story, and a family secret she’s been hiding.
In the DC-Metro area in 2012, the night was calm before the derecho swept through, leaving much cleaning up to do in its wake. Like the aftermath of the storm’s shocking upheaval, Swimming With Ghosts finishes with a glimpse into an altered calm – a calm that’s both sweet and sad and, one senses, better braced for hard weather. I highly recommend Swimming With Ghosts, and with the provocative issues the novel raises so sensitively, I think it would make a great book club pick, too. There’s so much to talk about, and so much to enjoy.
– J.H. Diehl
J.H. Diehl’s award-winning middle grade novel TINY INFINITIES (Chronicle Books 2018) was set in the MCSL.
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