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Swimming Paperback – Jul 13 2010
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“Keegan’s energy jumps off the page. . . . Swimming is a wonderful coming-of-age story, a richly detailed account of a young woman channeling her rage, grief and insecurity into a passion to win. The voice Keegan has invented for Pip is sarcastic, thoughtful, elegant, irreverent.” —The Boston Globe
“Comic and celebratory, full of the narrator’s weird blend of goofiness and intelligence. . . . Marvelous. . . . You don’t have to be a swimmer to respond to this story.” —The Washington Post
“A ravishing first novel. . . .The obstacles Keegan has set in the way of Pip’s athletic triumph come by way of a tumultuous, estrogen-rich family . . . two memorably in-your-face girlfriends and a gaggle of steel-plated nuns. . . . Gorgeous.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious and exhilarating. . . . Gloriously, darkly intuitive. . . . A novel as fun and imaginative as Swimming . . . deserves a medal.” —Time
“An exhilarating mix of talent and mastery. . . . Pip is a captivating narrator, bawdy, skittish and self-conscious, often emotionally raw. . . . Swimming captures the arc of a great athlete’s career, from training to competition to the inevitable endpoint, filtered through the awareness of a sensitive woman whose world has been shattered by grief.” —Jane Ciabattari, NPR, “Books We Love”
“A fine debut novel about the making of an Olympic champ.” —People
“Swimming [is] a joy and a testament to Keegan’s skills as a writer and storyteller, and will leave readers eager for more of her work as soon as it breaks the surface.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Young Pip relays her tale with such insight, you’ll feel you’re floating beside her.” —Good Housekeeping
“Keegan’s medal-worthy prose lingers on the tip of the tongue like a diver on the edge of the platform. . . . Fresh and spirited.” —Daily Candy
“Told in her own quirky, questioning and super-critical voice, Pip’s story of finding her way back to a life on land is inspiring, a must-read for anyone who has, at one time or another, found life to be a challenge.” —Hudson Valley News
“Keegan’s writing is beautiful, often stream-of-consciousness, and smart. . . . Pip is like the female Holden Caulfield, pointing out the ridiculous aspects of life, but secretly harboring a deep sadness about not being more entrenched in it.” —Bookreporter
“Nicola Keegan has pulled off a coup with her first novel. Swimming is as entertaining as it is deeply moving, a story of loss that is—against all odds—also a jubilation.” —Lauren Groff, author of The Monsters of Templeton
“Think: velocity. Think: a girl moving through adolescence at breakneck speed as she sloughs off anguish (her mother’s depression) and heartbreak (the deaths of her sister and father) to become a gold-medal winning Olympic swimmer. . . . [A] sleek-as-a-porpoise debut novel.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“I loved Swimming. It’s the most original novel I’ve read all year. I can’t get Pip’s voice out of my mind. Give yourself a treat this summer—read this book.” —Judy Blume
“Engaging. . . . An accomplished debut, as much about swimming as about what it takes to win—and lose.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Nicola Keegan’s prose is filled with inventive riffs to draw out the poignant turbulences of her heroine, both in the water and out. Reading the book becomes itself like a long, sinuous surge through the pool. . . . A classy fiction about the tenuous relationship of worldly success to the intimate self.” —The Independent (London)
“Keegan has caught not only the world of competitive swimming, but the problems professional athletes face when their careers end. . . . The prose is graceful and rapid, as if Keegan set out to write sentences as flowing as the medium she writes of.” —January magazine
“Keegan’s shimmering, fluid prose is outwardly playful, yet this is a seriously well-crafted novel.” —The Guardian (London)
“If Jane Bowles and Gerard Manley Hopkins had a lovechild, she might just possibly write as gloriously as Nicola Keegan. Swimming is a novel for people who love donut holes, or the dead, or dogs, or nuns, or fat people, or world class athletes, or the English language, or pretty much anything. It should be read, re-read, dreamed about, quoted to friends, and enacted as a shimmery odd hilarious mystery play. Swimming is simply magnificent.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
About the Author
Nicola Keegan divides her time between Ireland and France with her husband and three children.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
What does the novel focus on? Mainly, the effects of Pip's tragic family history and, to a considerably lesser extent, her relationships with fellow swimmers. At one point, Pip says that something is wrong with every swimming champion--some grief or deficiency is driving them. Pip is driven to swim to escape unhappiness at home. To me the most involving part of the novel concerns her older sister's struggle with cancer. No one will speak honestly to this unfortunate young girl. She emerges as a vivid character about whom the reader truly cares. It's harder to care about Pip's mother, who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder which prevents her attending any of her daughter's swim meets, or Pip's two other sisters, one an almost-nun, the other struggling with drug addiction.
The writing is beautiful. This is a first person account, told in the present tense, and with italics substituting for quotation marks. Stylistically, all this works, bringing us very close to Pip. As a reader, you feel you are meeting a real human being and become truly involved with her story.
This is the kind of book in which, if the protagonist gets a dog, you assume it will meet a sad fate. Misery is piled upon misery in the early part of the novel. Happiness is rare and fleeting. No family member ever expresses pride in Pip's achievements. We get a sense of the sacrifices endured by an Olympic champion, not of the triumphs.
Pip's true struggle is less to win Olympic gold than to first evade and then finally confront grief and depression: I get this. Still, I wanted the other part of Pip's story--the thrill of competition, and ultimately of victory. This aspect is stinted. I found the novel absorbing--I admire the writing enough to give it four stars--but I felt a piece was missing.
I loved the book for its dissection of the competitive spirit, the details of training (including the motivational speeches and the required diets) and the mentality of the super athlete. The analysis of the opposition was both snarky and sympathetic.
I loved this book for its depiction of swimming as escape from the burdens that life places upon families through illness, through dysfunction, through grief and loss and difference and plain old growing up. "Swimming" also gives us the friendship of Philomena and the Cocoplat with warmth and grace as the two change, grow, grow apart, reconcile.
I loved this book for the voice of the narrator, Philomena, her honesty, exuberance, humor, "eye talk," nun-parodies, and self-doubt.
"Swimming" is a funny, heart-breaking, wild, detailed, luminous, shattering, and wonderful book. It is absolutely my favorite book in years.
Brava, brava, brava, Ms. Keegan! "Swimming" is "Ulysses" without the intellectual pretense. The esteemed Harold Bloom of Yale may not agree, but I have "nunnerisms" straight from Philomena to tell him what I think of all that literary blather. This is a book for the ages and the people, not just the ivory-tower crowd.
Reading Swimming is like seeing a car wreck. It's brutal but often hard to look away. I found myself wanting to read more and more. The pages kept turning. But as other reviewers have noted, Philomena rarely gets to enjoy a positive experience. Good things get taken away or overshadowed by the aftermath.
Perhaps there's just so much going on it's hard to keep track, whether you're living the life or just reading about it. Philomena's father chose an eccentric career path, yet the family seems to have unlimited money. Each of Philomena's three sisters battles her own demons. Then there's the whole backdrop of the Catholic church and the parade of fellow swimmers, most of whom seem one-dimensionally mean.
The ending goes on for a long time. Both the author and heroine seem to have lost their way. Philomena doesn't seem to have moved emotionally beyond her scarred family. Perhaps a star athlete necessarily becomes too involved to remain connected with life. But Philomena had a superb college education. She had experiences that must have contributed to her growth. And yet she seems to be back where she was at the beginning of the novel: out of place, confused and rudderless. I keep thinking of a rocket that escapes gravity, only to fizzle and fall back to earth, a hollow shell of its former self.
Throughout the book, I kept wanting to shake the heroine and say, "Move on. Get over it." Of course if she did, the genre would be more like chick lit or women's fiction. It's the constant battle with adversity, combined with the flawless writing, that keeps Swimming in the realm of literary fiction.
Swimming is the first-person narrative story of the character "Pip" (Philomena). It starts with her learning that she can swim before she can walk or talk. Pip's early childhood is revealed in a series of "snapshot" chapters that reminded me of the spottiness of childhood memories. Then she provides a more connected narrative from early teens, through the critical point where she transitions to a serious competitor, through intensive training to world-class triumph, and beyond.
The book's style and tone are remarkable, though I may struggle to describe them. The story flows easily: it becomes compelling, an unusual kind of page-turner. It is told in an intimate yet detached way. I didn't know what year it was for more than 100 pages, nor her last name for nearly 200; but Pip, her family, her friends are spotlighted with a clear, penetrating insight that is non-judgmental but merciless and somehow warmer for that. I felt that I knew these people, and I ached for their sorrows even as their story evoked memories of my own.
Pip's key transition is sharply drawn, and leaves the clear impression that things could have gone otherwise: rather than "champion" she might have earned any of a dozen lesser titles; there aren't many judgmental labels in the book, but I might call some of the alternatives "stoner", "town pump", "couch potato". Pip's experiences are so very particular that the deeper truth of her story becomes universal. We understand a "champion" as a state in a continuity with the varied conditions of those around Pip, a condition that seems "special" more due to media attention than anything else.
There were a few things that bothered me a little about the book as I was reading it. The opening chapter, in first-person by a nine-month-old girl, struck me as a bit off (unrealistic? pretentious?) in places as I first read it. But I decided later that it had to be written as it was, to set up the book's overall tone. And I felt some doubts in some early chapters as to how they would contribute to the story: was the book wandering? Perhaps a little, but at the critical point I felt I knew Pip well enough to understand what she was doing.
This is a remarkable book. After reading it I feel I know more about what it is to be human than I did before, and some of my own memories have a currency that I have not felt for many years. I highly recommend working through any doubts such as those I had in the early parts of the book: you will be well rewarded.
The Holy Name School nuns and parishioners figure importantly in Pip's early life. When the family teeters on emotional collapse, they come in to support the family in target groups variously and cheekily titled (by Pip) The Encouraging Catholics, The Suffering Catholics, and The Dark Catholics. Her mother is unable to provide emotional support, slipping into her own oblivion and remaining aloof from her children. She is only quasi-involved with Pip's achievements and ambition; Pip's parental role is ministered by her swim coaches, first in high school and then in college.
This is less a story about a swimmer striving for the Olympics and more about the inner life of a long-suffering girl and her family. This is a novel about championing loss, of triumph over tragedy, about swimming very close to the dark abyss of oblivion. Although we are taken to the Olympics and plunge into Pip's heavy workouts at the pool, it almost feels peripheral to the real story of a wounded family desperate to heal. If you are hoping for a more conventional tale of the rise of an Olympiad--the hunger, the forces (with you and against you), the ferocity, the fierceness, the challenges--you may be disappointed. This is an offbeat tale of indomitable will and salvation, of crushing defeat, and of double-edged victories.
Keegan's prose is saucy, tart, fierce, poignant, wry, and radiant. It provides a grip on the reader and keeps us harnessed to Pip at all times. There are no quotation marks--italics are used instead, rendering a mood of self-containment and even isolation--symbolic of a swimmer's enclosure. Keegan's stylistic technique generally works; however, her sentence structure during the first half of the novel feels atonal. It darts around in a peppery, nervy, high-strung rhythm, providing no balanced relief. Splashy, anxiety-provoking sentences squeak with a twittery modulation. Although it mirrors Pip's moods, it lacks atmosphere and will keep you at a swimmer's arm's-length distance. What kept me fastened were the author's beautiful, potent words. Her metaphors and imagery are brilliant and her love of language is evident on every page.
The second half of the novel is more buoyant, with a richer, textured tempo and sentence structure, and I dove deeper into the waters of Pip's mind and life. She experiences a passionate, cleaving love and the angst of making decisions about her future. The erratic focus of the first half dissolved and the story acquired more clarity. The novel is non-linear, which is a method I (generally) find aesthetically pleasing. However, the author awkwardly segued back and forth from present to past, creating a sense of temporal dislocation that felt spurious and clumsy at intervals.
Although the story spans approximately fifteen years, it surfaces like a slice-of-life, with three-dimensional characters and obscure eccentricities superseding semblance of plot. Ongoing issues threaten to drown Pip even as she achieves her goals and matures into a young woman. The fall-out from grief and tragedy subsumes every chapter of Pip's life, jeopardizing her happiness. She is driven to break world records but lacks the skills to break through her mourning clouds. It's swim or die--her only anchor to sanity is the pool, but it also augurs her undoing.
This is an odd, ripe, sardonic, unsentimental tale that pushes, glides, kicks, and exalts with an unruly, deep-end spirit.
Fans of Miranda July will like Swimming--this author is easily her kindred spirit.