Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

 

Month and Year: August 1926

Event: At the age of 21, the tenacious Trudy Ederly, a 1924 Olympic gold medalist in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay,  became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Ederly, a Jersey girl, made it from the shores of France to the British Coast in 14 hours and 34 minutes.

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Month and Year: June 1934

Event: Inspired by Trudy Ederle’s accomplishment in 1926, Florence Adler, a young student, is in training to repeat Ederle’s success. However, Florence intends to break Trudy’s record and cross the channel in twelve hours. Florence has been training with a handsome, young lifeguard named Stuart Williams. It is clear that Stuart has other plans in mind for Florence, once she finishes her oceanic challenge, but Florence doesn’t seem romantically interested in Stuart; at least for now.

 

The setting: Atlantic City, New Jersey, Summer 1938 

 

The subject: A Jewish family, who lives in a house in Atlantic City during the winter, but rents their big house out to “bennies” in the summer. For the duration of June, July, and August, the Adlers move into the small apartment, located upstairs from their lucrative bakery on Virginia Ave.

 

The family: Esther and Joseph Adler, have two daughters, Fannie and Florence. Fannie has been married for quite some time to Isaac, and they have an eight-year-old daughter, Gussie, from whom the point of view of the story is delivered. Having suffered a terrible miscarriage only the year before, Fannie is now pregnant and on bed rest at a local hospital where she can be monitored closely by the nurses, who prevent her from walking around. 

For convenience’s sake, Gussie is living with her grandparents, the Adlers. The other resident in the apartment is a petite woman, who seems very alone and removed from the strangers with whom she is living. Anna is a refugee from Germany, the daughter of old friends of Joseph’s. Anna’s parents were able to get their daughter out of Germany just in the nick of time, but they have been unsuccessful in saving themselves. Joseph is doing everything in his power to help them leave Nazi Germany before it is too late, but nothing seems to be working for them. The noose is getting tighter and tighter around the necks of the Jews in Germany, and their daughter, Anna, is haunted by their plight.

 

The Story: Florence Adler Swims Forever, has an innocence to it, reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Gussie, like Scout, is a wide-eyed observer of events that are swirling around her. Sometimes she knows what questions she would like to ask, but also knows that it is better not to ask them. And, sometimes she does ask questions that are inappropriate. 

Gussie has become enamored of the handsome and wealthy Stuart, whose father owns the most prestigious hotel in Atlantic City. Even though he could work for his father if he chose to, Stuart shuns the Covington Hotel, and his father as well.  Gussie has kept her adoration for Stuart a secret, even though she has decided that she is going to marry him. 

One day Gussie wanders to the beach by herself and spots Stuart on the lifeguard’s stand. He breaks the rules and lets Gussie come up and sit next to him on the stand. Gussie has come looking for Stuart as she has brought him a special home-made gift. She has painted two miniature seahorses on a small rock. Touched, Gus thanks her for the lovely gift, and the child finds it in herself to ask Stuart this question, “I wanted to ask,” her voice suddenly whispered--- “if you might marry me?”

Stuart wisely lets Gussie down easily, telling her that if she reached the age of twenty, and decided she wanted to marry an old man, she was welcome. But if, in the meantime, she falls in love with someone younger and more handsome, she should feel free to ask to be let out of the arrangement. Gussie is such an odd little creature, wise beyond her years in some ways, and Stuart is careful not to crush her delicate feelings.

The plot swirls around family secrets. Dislodging one secret sets in motion for all the others to be revealed. There are wonderful family scandals, issues of sexuality, and the true depth of certain relationships to be discovered.

 

The Author: Florence Adler Swims Forever is Rachel Beanland’s first novel, and it is a warm and wonderful book. Her inspiration for the story comes from family lore. “The character of Florence Adler is based on a real girl who grew up in Atlantic City. Her name was Florence Lowenthal and she was my great-great aunt,” Beanland explains in the Author’s Note. Much of the story and the development of the wonderful characters is based on Beanland’s memories of her grandmother and other extended family members. Knowing this adds a touch of realism to the novel, but the book is charming even if Beanland had not revealed this information to the reader.

 

Assessment: Florence Adler Swims Forever engaged my attention from the first page and held it throughout.  As a lover of World War II literature, and having spent many happy hours in Atlantic City while I was a child, for me Beanland had created a nostalgic period that I could relate to easily.