Tragedy and Protecting The Ones We Love
Florence Adler Swims Forever
By: Rachel Beanland
I owe this week’s incredible gem of a book to my mother-in-law. She and I don’t always agree on books, but she recommended this one to me and after reading the description I was hooked.
Florence Adler Swims Forever is Rachel Beanland’s first novel, and I hope she writes many more because I love her style of writing. After reading the epilogue you will come to find that this story is based on her own family and incidents that occurred in the first half of the 20th century. The novel is set in Atlantic City in 1934. Atlantic City pre World War II was nothing like it is now. South Jersey was viewed as prime real estate and in the 1850s developers had their sights set on Atlantic City becoming a resort town. The city was incorporated in 1854 and the same year train service began between Camden and the Atlantic Railroad. By 1878 there was a direct railroad line between Philadelphia and Atlantic City and it soon became a vacation destination for Philadelphians.
By 1874 almost 500,000 passengers were coming to Atlantic City by railroad. The first boardwalk was built in 1870, and hotels sprouted up all along its shores. Before the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane, the boardwalk spanned about 7 miles and extended from Atlantic City to Longport, through Ventnor and Margate. One of the largest hotels at the time was named The United States. It took up a full city block and featured the most updated amenities and luxuries for wealthy vacationers.
In 1934, tourism in Atlantic City was at its peak. Prohibition had ended the year before, and people were recovering from the Great Depression. Americans were ready to start living again and wanted to enjoy a vacation in luxury at the seashore.
This is the story of the Adler family. The Adler’s are a Jewish family who own a successful bakery in Atlantic City. The patriarch of the family, Joseph, came over from Eastern Europe and built the bakery from the ground up. The family went from living over the bakery to owning a house on a prime corner in Atlantic City. Joseph and his wife Esther have two girls, Florence age 20 and Fannie age 27. Florence is home from Wellesley College for the summer and is training to swim the English Channel in August. Her older sister Fannie is in the hospital awaiting the arrival of her baby. She had delivered a premature baby the previous summer and was put on bed rest in the hospital for this pregnancy, with the hope that she would carry the baby full-term. Fannie’s 7-year old daughter Gussie is living with her parents for the summer because she feels it would be too much for her husband Isaac to deal with.
Gussie is a precocious 7-year old, wise beyond her years, often questioning the motivations of the adults around her. She adores her aunt Florence and doesn’t mind living with her grandparents for the summer because at least part of the time Florence will be with her. Esther and Joseph also have a Hungarian refugee, Anna, living with them. They have sponsored Anna to live with them because she is Jewish and in 1934, European Jews were trying to escape Europe due to early rumblings from the Nazi’s. Because of Joseph’s relationship with Anna’s parents, he has agreed to have Anna come live with them and helps to get her admission into New Jersey State Teacher’s College. Anna’s plan is to start school in Trenton in the fall.
The novel is told from the point of view of Joseph, Esther, Fannie, Anna, Gussie and Stuart. Stuart is Florence’s non-Jewish swim coach and is head over heels in love with her.
From the first chapter we know this novel’s tragedy will be that Florence dies by drowning. Seven-year-old Gussie narrates this chapter, adding a childlike perception to this terrible incident. Gussie is at the beach with her Aunt Florence and Anna. Stuart joins them and it is through this brief interaction that you come to understand the relationship between Florence and Stuart. We come to know how much Stuart adores Florence and the genuine friendship that they have. Florence goes out for a training swim with her red swim cap on but never comes home. This incredible swimmer who spends her days and nights training has died by drowning.
The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of this accident and through the narration of each character you come to know Florence and her family. Everyone is shocked by this tragedy, but Esther decides that Fannie can never find out for fear that she will go into early labor and lose another baby. A small funeral is held just for the immediate family and friends. Neighbors and hospital staff are asked to keep this accident a secret from Fannie until she has safely delivered her baby. The family must grieve alone and silently. The entire summer becomes about keeping a secret from Fannie while her blood pressure continues to rise because she doesn’t understand why no one is visiting her. Gussie’s grandparents stop letting her visit her mother because they’re afraid she won’t be able to keep the secret.
Isaac, Fannie’s husband is the ne’er do well son-in-law. Isaac can only be described, as a man who feels like the whole world owes him something. He consistently gets himself into financial trouble with his father-in-law bailing him out. Isaac works for the bakery but feels that he is destined for greater things. He is never grateful or thankful to his overly generous father-in-law for the job or the bailouts that he continuously gives him.
What I love about this novel is the incredible story of family, and what people do to protect their loved ones from extreme sorrow. The readers learn a great deal about all the characters even as they hide the truth from one another. The most important thing is that we come to understand the actions and motivations of the characters through those that love them.
On the day that Florence was to sail to Europe, Joseph and Stuart ride out to Atlantic Highlands to watch her steamship leave for France. As Joseph watches the boat depart, he thinks, “Florence was not on that boat, would never arrive in France. He would not find her on the shores of the English Channel or at the Hygeia or even on the beaches of Atlantic City. He looked over at Stuart, who was openly weeping as he watched the boat disappear from view. Maybe Joseph’s daughter was to be found in the people who loved her the most.”
This is the story of the American Dream, old-fashioned values, and the weight that a family secret can hold on those involved. Most importantly, it makes us wonder what is more important, honesty, or lying to protect the one’s we love? And when we do go out of our way to form a web of deceit does it become a betrayal that one can come back from? These are all questions that will cross your mind as you read this incredible story. This is the perfect end of the summer read that will hold your attention as you savor every moment and hope it will never end.
Florence Adler Swims Forever
By: Rachel Beanland
Publication Date: July 7, 2020
Simon & Schuster