Swimming by Joanna HershonSwimming by Joanna Hershon

Swimming

byJoanna Hershon

Paperback | June 25, 2002

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Twenty years ago, Vivian Silver abandoned her dreams of travel to marry the mysterious Jeb Wheeler, seduced both by his unnerving charm and his acres of untamed New Hampshire land. The hand-built house and swimming pond become the center of the universe for their entire family. Lila, their youngest, is consumed with love for her two older brothers, Aaron and Jack, and remains blind to the simmering tension between them. For beneath the surface of their idyllic setting lies a depth of explosive feeling that none of them can control.

Into this heated atmosphere glides Aaron’s girlfriend, Suzanne, whose presence is threatening, exciting; Lila thrills to the ominous quality of Aaron’s absolute adoration for this young woman. Before her visit is over, Suzanne will unleash the forces of rage between Aaron and Jack, compelling one brother to commit an act against the other that can never be taken back.
A decade later, living in New York, Lila still searches for Aaron, who disappeared that night, and Suzanne, whose mystique still exerts a hold on her memory. For Lila to move past her family’s tragedy, she must piece together what happened that fateful weekend–and recover the things lost down by the water–before she can at last let them go.

A stunning literary novel that captures the lingering effects of longing and loss, Swimming is by turns a gripping family story, a heartbreaking coming of age journey, and a suspenseful psychological investigation into the meaning and limits of fidelity, identity, and intimacy.


From the Hardcover edition.
Joanna Hershon received a masters of fine arts in fiction from Columbia University in 1999. She has been a Breadloaf Working Scholar, an Edward Albeen Writing Fellow, and a twice-produced playwright in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Derek Buckner, a painter.From the Hardcover edition.
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Title:SwimmingFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:384 pages, 8.23 × 5.43 × 0.79 inShipping dimensions:8.23 × 5.43 × 0.79 inPublished:June 25, 2002Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345442768

ISBN - 13:9780345442765

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Read from the Book

1966There is no such thing as silence in the woods. Vivian Silver trustedthis, as she followed the man she'd met only hours ago down the pine-darkpath of his property. She watched his lean figure and became hypnotized byhis uneven gait, the majesty of his long narrow back. He hadn't onceturned around to make sure that she'd kept up, and this did not surpriseher. Just as she knew that there was no such thing as silence in thewoods, she also somehow trusted that as carefully as she was watching him,he was listening even more carefully for her quick footfalls and thehigh-pitched swish of her navy blue windbreaker. She could feel himlistening, and that was good enough.She walked on and heard skitters of invisible creatures, the wind throughthe thinning pines. There was a sense of clarity that accompanied thequiet, and this was something Vivian already knew to look for in a man.When one held back from her, she couldn't help but pay attention.The path finally opened up into a clearing, and because the sun had justset, the land-his land-was the darkest of greens, a shade brought on byOctober in New Hampshire when the day holds on to the richness of coloreven when light is gone.There in the distance, just as he'd promised, was a pond.She couldn't quite see the water. He was blocking her view with his body,but she could smell the wet sand and fallen leaves, the swampy, reedydarkness. And although it was unquestionably autumn, Vivian could feel thebrazen heat of summer, the lovely shock of a dive. She could also hear theslice of blades on ice, the scrape and shriek of skating. On sensing thisbody of water, she briefly forgot why she was here. Then a distinct shifttook place inside of her as he placed his hand-as if he'd done socountless times-under her long tangled hair. He still hadn't said a word.Here was a feeling both thrilling and disappointing, as if someone hadjust informed her that the world was about to end. Her neck was cold andhis hand was warm. It was the first time they had touched.Vivian was saving money to sail away to Spain. She was substitute teachingand writing poetry while staying with her brother Aaron. That night Aaronsent her to Cal's Bar, where he knew the bartender. Aaron knew a lot ofbartenders for someone who didn't drink. He knew everybody in Portsmouth. Only months later,having decided not to go to Canada, he would die a reluctant private in a Vietnam helicopter accident; the funeral intheir Massachusetts hometown would be so crowded that his pregnant sisterwouldn't recognize half of the people there. Her first son would be hisnamesake. She would name him Aaron and pray, like any mother, that hewould not die young.But she knew none of this that evening, when she sat alone at Cal's Bar,drinking a bottle of beer. She had been aware of Jeb Wheeler's presencesince he'd walked through the door in worn jeans, a workshirt, and a reddown vest. She guessed he was at least thirty-five. He was very tall andthin with a long crooked nose, full lips, and arresting green eyes. It washis eyes that she noticed first. There was something wrong with them. She tried not tostare as he sat down beside her and ordered a rare hamburger. She triednot to stare but soon became acutely aware that he was the one who wasstaring. And he wasn't shy about it either."Hello," he said."Oh, hi." She smiled and looked into his eyes that were strange. As onemoved normally in the socket, the other stayed quite still. While hispupils were the same light green color and were framed by the same long dark lashes, the left eye appeared to bemade of glass. It was foreign and would stay foreign. She'd never quiteget used to it."I've never been here," she said, just to say something.But he wasn't like that. He kept on looking at her and smiling. Finally hesaid, "Well, I'm glad you're here now."She told him what there was to tell about herself, how she'd graduatedfrom college and was leaving for Spain in the springtime. She tried tokeep it brief and ended up drinking her beer too quickly. He didn't askmany questions and the ones he did ask were blunt: Why Spain? What willyou do for money once you're there? Have you noticed my eye yet?He had lived in New York City and worked as a chemist. In a slightly suspect explanation of how he'd ended up here-looking like a lumberjack or possibly a carpenter-Vivian learned that hehad sold something, a patent of sorts, and that he had quit his job."What do you do now?" she asked, leaning into him, not completely awareshe was doing so. She could smell woodsmoke on his clothes, the fainttoxic smell of varnish."Well," he said, smiling, as if he somehow wasn't quite sure what to say,"I bought land. I bought some fine land, and I've been building myself ahouse.""Where is it?" Vivian asked. She pictured herself on top of him on a spareiron bed, being cold and even lonely and asking him to build a fire. Shedidn't bother trying to stop fantasizing. She knew herself better thanthat."It's about forty-five minutes from here," he said, and raised hiseyebrows. "Kind of out there." He gave her a look as if to say, I dare you.When he was through with his burger, they left together. He opened thepassenger door of his truck for her.He said, "You don't need to worry; I'm not very dangerous."Until that moment, the thought hadn't crossed her mind.And now they were in a forest clearing between his half-built house andthe pond. Pine needles covered the loamy ground, and sycamores framed thesky. They weren't looking at each other. As he moved his hand very gentlyalong the back of her pale neck, she found she was straining to see the pond-over his shoulder, beyond the trees-as if to see the black-green waterwould be to inhabit the sense of certainty that she knew water created.But from where she stood, the water was not much more than a ghost in thetrees watching and assessing this union.Vivian reached out to touch him, letting him know right away where shestood. Under the down vest, his denim shirt was hot. She rested her handthere as if it were the most normal thing in the world."Beautiful," she finally said. The trees moved so slightly. The sky wasfull of stars."You are," he told her, and, taking her pale face in his two rough hands,he kissed her.A kiss can be as minuscule as a moth or the tiny flame it craves, a tornfingernail or an eyelash; and yet a kiss can be huge. It can be asexpansive and dangerous as this one was. It can be the origin of a family.They kissed softly and tenderly at first, and then things got rougher. As the clear sky became clearer and darker, they grabbed holdof each other's clothing. They kissed hard, almost bitterly, as if theyresented their mutual attraction.They were both impatient people. They'd wage battles against impatienceall their lives, but not tonight. Tonight they did exactly what theywanted.They didn't even make it to the house. Without any debate, she lay down onthe cold damp grass. She wasn't taking birth control pills and he didn'tuse a rubber, and-as if it were a dream and she was using dream logic-shefound she knew exactly what she was doing without any fear ofconsequences. Vivian watched for the pond over his shoulder but couldn't see a thing;the promise of a pond sat under the moon and stared at her boldly,watching her gasp for breath. She thought of Spain with a kind ofnostalgia: it seemed smaller than before and awfully far away. She saidgoodbye to Cordoba and Sevilla, adios to flamenco and paella.He breathed in her ear and she kissed his long, stubbled neck."I can't believe we just did that," he told her. But she knew that he waslying."Let me show you the house," Jeb said, after gently taking her hand in hisand heading for the path. When he kissed her again, she felt a surge ofgreed and strained to see the water. "What?" he asked.He was close to her, leaning down to see her face. She could smell thevarnish and the brackish smell of his sweat. It was purely carnal and shebacked away from him-head tilted, coy-as if she had a secret."What?" he repeated.She retreated some more-a come-and-catch-me set of eyes, an attempt at awicked smile. The water was so close just beyond the stand of trees andweeds, and-with a toss of her hair, having barely a notion of what she wasdoing-she ran.As she expected, he did not run after her. Vivian was now free to get asnear to the water as possible, to trample over the fallen wet reeds andfeel her boots sink into the sand. The wind blew and the pond came to her,slowly lapped at her boot toes in a lazy, ancient rhythm. The moon shonedown in a harsh slant, casting the pond as particularly separate from thesoil and the trees and from her. She felt younger out here in this untamedspace, and-as if she were being watched, as if the pond itself werejudging her-she stood up straighter as she surveyed the landscape. Shetook a deep clean breath.Jagged rocks began a few yards to her left. Smooth slabs framed the water,flat as if they'd been carefully beaten down. Dried-out grass stood tall,interspersed with endless weeds.She wouldn't have changed a thing.The pond wore its surroundings like careless attire, as if to protect itsluminous beauty. Its surface shimmered, innocent of the forest's tallshadows or the mountains' cranky terrain. The water divulged nothing, andshe couldn't help but bend down and touch it with her fingertips. It feltbrutally cold, and she put her fingers in her mouth at once, sucking backsome comfort from herself. Vivian gazed at the water and there it was-herreflected self, round as an infant but twice the size. Then, quick aslightning, the distorted shape was gone as a dark cloud shrouded the moon.Here was where she would make her life. Over years to come she would swimand sunbathe, take walks with Jeb and the children, take time alone withher thoughts. She would eat potluck meals here, engaging in terrificconversations with neighbors who would move away. And later in life, afterdrinking too much, she would come straight to the slabs of rock by thewater's edge and she would sit-her mouth parted, too tired for wonder-staring at the water for hours.This was where her future would unfold. Later she'd say she knew it rightthen and without a single doubt. She would tell her sons and daughter thatshe just knew it, the same way she knew that Spain was only a singlecountry on so many maps of the world.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. What does the title suggest, and what varieties of "swimming" are involved in the action? How does the swim at the story's start contrast with the plunge at the end? 2. Do the three epigraphs (from Marilynne Robinson, Emily Dickinson, and Martin Buber) constitute a kind of progression for the three parts? How does Dickinson's phrase in particular--"The truth must dazzle gradually"--describe the story line? 3. Twenty-one years elapse between the action of the Prologue and Part One, and ten years elapse between Part One and Two. Parts Two and Three, however, are directly sequential. What is the author telling us about the presence of the past and the healing passage of time? 4. Can you come up with reasons for the brothers' sibling rivalry? Why are they so angry with each other, and is Suzanne a kind of lightning rod for the trouble that erupts between them, or is she the trouble itself? 5. What motivates Pria's behavior? In what ways does she change between the first and second time we meet her, and do you feel she's trying to atone for her actions at the party and on the night of Jack's death? 6. The same question could well be asked of Suzanne. How sympathetic is the author to this character/ seductress? Why is it, do you think, that she's willing to acknowledge Lila during that first meeting in New York? 7. Both Lila and Aaron have the habit of calling their parents and then hanging up. What does this tell us about the nature of communication in the Wheeler clan? 8. We know what's under Sylvie's bed and what the red box contains. What would Aaron (as David Silver) have of hers under his own bed? 9. In what ways is this a time-bound piece (describing the nature of the counter-culture in the 1980s, the drug culture in the 1990s, etc.), and in what ways does the family dynamic exist outside of a specific time and place? 10. Imagine Swimming as a set of linked short stories or as a movie or play. What would be gained and what lost? 11. Why does Lila disguise herself as Abby in her brother's house? What causes her to come out of hiding and reveal herself at last? 12. Is it realistic that a brother would not know his sister after a decade of growth? And why should Lila recognize a woman she's seen only once, when she herself was eight years old at the time, and who now has spent ten years thereafter in New York City? 13. Describe a day in 1967 in which Jeb and Vivian Wheeler are alone in the house he has built and to which she moves when they're first married. Describe the same day in 1997 when they are alone in the house once more--with one of their three children dead and the other two away. 14. Imagine the visit to Portsmouth from Ben's point of view. Why does he get so angry at Lila when she says she needs to run an errand by herself? 15. Imagine the scene when Suzanne returns to her husband after she tells Lila what happened on the fateful night in 1987. What does she tell Richard and how does he respond? 16. If this novel had been told in the first person, who would be its likely narrator and why? 17. In what ways does the scene of the party at the lake outside Ann Arbor (Part Three) repeat what happened at the party in the Wheelers' pond (Part One)? Look for variations on the theme and what those changes might mean. 18. "The water was blue and the sky was pink and the trees flourishing green. 'Are you okay?' she said. He said he was full of awe." This climactic moment at the end of Chapter Twenty-five is a scene of rebirth and redemption, clearly. To what extent is it also, in the formal sense, religious? Is Aaron's time in Israel and his shelf of Biblical texts directly relevant here?19. What will happen when Aaron goes home and arrives at the house once again? 20. These were nineteen questions. Formulate twenty more.

Editorial Reviews

"Joanna Hershon has a gift for choreographing a group of characters in space and in time. She is persuasive with moments of sexual passion, and she knows how to make them last for the reader long after the lovemaking is over. In her novel, the past pulses in the present, and we experience these lives with real sorrow, and real hope."–Frederick Busch, bestselling author of Girls and The Night Inspector:"Reading Joanna Hershon’s Swimming is like diving in over your head– intoxicating and terrifying at once. Not since Jane Hamilton’s Map of the World have I read such an affecting tale of memory and loss. I couldn’t put it down."–Sheri Holman, bestselling author of The Dress LodgerFrom the Hardcover edition.