Sarah Kunitz is sixteen-years-old and lives in a suburb just an hour north of Boston in the "perfect" family. After all the recipe for a perfect family is that of a mother and father who both live at home, children, a big house, and money. On the surface, at least, it's perfect. This is the Kunitz family of Boston in the 1970s.
In this quiet and compelling coming-of-age story of the only daughter in a dysfunctional family, sixteen-year-old Sarah has never felt mothered by the woman who now glides through life, a drink in one hand and a pill in the other. A classically trained violinist, was it the arthritis in her mother's hands that forced her to stop playing? Was it inheritance money that caused an emotional distance for them? Or was having a family the mistake? What was it that made Sarah's mother drift through life without being connected with her own children?
It's a question no child would want to ask of their mother, and especially by an only daughter. Sarah is just beginning to find her own place in life, and even a slight connection with her musical mother by developing a strong singing voice. But her chances to learn more of her mother's past are cut short when a car accident in the heart of Boston on an icy night leaves Sarah and her three brothers motherless. Now a new question surfaces: Was the car crash truly an accident, or did her mother choose to leave them?
This was a deeply touching and acutely felt story. Jessica Keener succeeded in building a fully developed character in Sarah, one whose emotional story was laced with flaw, tinged with regret, and ultimately ached to receive motherly guidance in any way possible. While I felt there were a few plot points that went on longer than necessary, those are minor quibbles about a story that felt genuine with every page and character. The sad fact was that it already seemed as though Sarah had always been living without a mother, with the accident securing what she couldn't (or didn't want to) recognize before. That might be what ringed the most genuine in this story. It's not when the person dies that makes you realize that things can never change now; instead, it's realizing that nothing ever would have gotten better even if the person had lived.
Night Swim is an emotional tale of growing up and feeling lost in a big family with parents who are emotionally absent. With summer romances, tough questions, drugs, loss, and heartache, the 1970s will be Sarah's time to make the choices that will shape her future and ultimately, make her whole. I enjoyed this story and anticipate a long career from Jessica Keener; I look forward to reading much, much more from her.
Publisher: The Fiction Studio
Release Date: 1/10/2012
- Although this is not a memoir, readers who enjoy them, along with coming-of-age stories, will find a lot to discuss and think about with Night Swim. A book club will likely feel comfortable to reminisce with their own personal stories of growing up as well.
- While the character is a teenager, the reader should know that the story does deal with big topics such as drugs, alcohol, and sex, but this can provide a great opportunity for discussion with your teenager. If they read it, you should, too, and talk about the issues addressed.
- Food was occasionally mentioned throughout the novel, and whenever I see something I've never heard of before, I research until I find a good recipe. For that reason, I made Noodle Pudding over the weekend, and I'll be posting it this Friday for Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking meme.
About the Author
Jessica Keener is the author of her acclaimed debut novel, Night Swim. She grew up in Boston and received her Master's from Brown University. A freelance writer, she has published in The Boston Globe Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Inspired House, Coastal Living, Design New England, and Poets & Writers. Her stories have been listed in The Pushcart Prize under "outstanding writers." She currently lives in Boston.
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