Fuller's 2017 novel concerns a long-dead mother, her daughter and widowed husband as they witness the intermingling of love and loss. (Image via Spine Magazine)
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Fuller's 2017 novel concerns a long-dead mother, her daughter and widowed husband as they witness the intermingling of love and loss. (Image via Spine Magazine)

The Claire Fuller novel is just begging for a Wes Anderson adaptation.

Yes, lying beneath those surface level qualities that allow each individual to grow uniquely, beneath our clothes, the color of our hair, our eyes, our skin — we are all the same.

Intrinsically, fundamentally, we are built upon a central axis around which each and every individual roaming this Earth revolves: the oh-so-humble human truth that we love ourselves.

You heard that right – sometimes without realizing it, we keep track of ourselves; we monitor our health, our happiness, quite often our hunger and so many of our other nuances. Admit it. We all notice so much more about ourselves than about those around us, and this selfishness is what makes us so fundamentally human.

You might have thought you’d grown out of our childish egocentricity, but the reality is that you haven’t – in reality, that same youthful selfishness still exists as pride for who you have become. You still notice those subtle nuances about yourself that make you uniquely you.

At some point, we’ve all stopped for a second, felt a little freaked out and wondered to ourselves “Am I the only one?” Well, I’m here to lend you a helping hand – you’re not.

And British novelist Claire agrees. In her 2017 fiction work, “Swimming Lessons,” these things you think only you notice about yourself manifest within Fuller’s characters. These distinctly human mannerisms and gestural tendencies, down to the slightest raise of an eyebrow, create characters and their intermingling relationships that are incredibly lifelike.

Swimming Lessons
Fuller’s characters are brought together with an attention to detail that most people reserve only for descriptions of themselves. (Image via The Times)

So, answer me this. How can someone imaginary, someone created out of thin air be one of us? Or in this case, how can you – a living, breathing individual reading this right now – compare yourself to a character who only exists through the words written by an author?

Let’s break it down.

How can someone so fundamentally far from human appear human?

Fuller demonstrates a refreshing literary genius in “Swimming Lessons,” which comes complete with an incredible repertoire of minute character details that make her Gil and her Ingrid Coleman effortlessly human.

Fuller’s style as a serial nitpicker has been praised by a number of critics, including Louise Doughty of The Guardian, who wrote, “As in her first novel, ‘Our Endless Numbered Days,’ it’s the sharp eye for detail, sometimes bizarre, that makes her writing stand out.”

“Swimming Lessons” follows the story of a young woman who finds herself trapped inside reality, and her resulting downward spiral as it knocks her once-carefree happiness aside. An examination of individuals and the intermingling of love and loss, the novel presents the story through the point of view of this young woman, Ingrid Coleman, as well as through that of her daughter, Flora.

Although she disappeared almost 11 years earlier, Ingrid’s story lives through the letters she wrote to her husband Gil that she hid among the impressive used-book collection he housed in their mansion. Conversely, Flora tells the complicated story of the present, and exposes the difficulty she faces in deciding what the truth about her mother may be.

Gil and Ingrid’s personas practically leap off the page and into your living room, along with those of Flora and other important character pieces of the plot puzzle. At this rate, someone will need to call Colin Firth because the one and only Gil — so charming we want to hate him — will soon want to take his risqué writing career to the big screen and he’ll need a strong actor to flesh out his larger-than-words personality.

The novel, told by trading points of view between Ingrid in her letters to Gil and Flora living out the present day, constantly moves between characters, encompassing a range of emotions expressed by all those present in the pages. No rewrites necessary for these movie producers – Fuller effortlessly lays it all on the table with comfortably conversational dialogue and a keen eye for setting the scene.

The character web Fuller creates toys with the classic six-degrees-of-separation trope, à la those “Love Actually” style dram-rom-coms. Meanwhile the rainy coastal setting calls upon the visual inspo of “About Time” and other rainy, rural romances with only brief glimpses of the city and its sex.

In This Case, a Motion Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words 

At the same time, a deep focus on the unknown, Flora’s insatiable longing to know the truth behind her mother’s assumed death, and therefore, a careful examination of the stability of the human psyche after loss add undertones rich with significance to this multilayered fiction.

The Swimming Pavilion itself stands as a motif throughout the novel. The home lies within the fictional coastal village Fuller calls Spanish Green, a location based on the quaint town of Dorset in Scotland. The sea it overlooks develops as the tangible metaphor for escape amid heartbreak, for emptiness and numbness and for the unknown, all hiding within the blueish grayish abyss.

Additionally, raining mackerel as another reoccurring metaphor for the unseen and the uncertainty surrounding Ingrid’s mysterious disappearance evolves as the trademark gnomon throughout the novel – never fully explained to readers, yet bearing great loss nonetheless.

Now, just imagine hues of pastels alongside a palette of navy blues that color the scene as Flora drives off the ferry to the Swimming Pavilion in the Morris Minor, only to be met with hundreds of little fish flopping onto the hood of her boyfriend’s jalopy from the stormy night sky above. Sounds like yet another Wes Anderson creation to follow other indie masterpieces “Moonrise Kingdom” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to leave audiences evenly dazed and dazzled, right?

Fuller herself intended “Swimming Lessons” to leave readers with cliffhangers, and indeed numerous blanks needed to be filled in. Each of Ingrid’s letters to Gil, cleverly hidden in books from his massive collection around the house, simultaneously expose so much about what prompted her to leave the life she had and lack just the perfect amount of detail to leave readers unable to put down the novel. This sensation would be no different from the sense of awe and contented confusion evoked within prospective audiences of its visual adaptation.

“I’d like them to have read a story…that makes them think. Because just as Gil says…we want/I want the reader to be really involved in this book and almost create it themselves,” Fuller said about her purpose behind “Swimming Lessons” in a discussion with Seattle Refined.

Although the dramatization of Fuller’s work would limit moviegoers’ use of their imaginations in forming their own opinions, the emphasis placed on reading between the lines ensures boundless artistic liberties to those behind the lens. In this way, cinematographers would have the ability to craft a surreal experience for audiences by combining a variety of interpretations of Fuller’s flawlessly detailed scenes from the minds of the movie-makers themselves.

“I know some readers are frustrated because they want a novel that provides all the answers, but this one doesn’t, very [sic] very deliberately. So [sic] I want them to have to work a bit really,” Fuller said.

So, instead, the actors, the directors and the producers carry out most of the imaginative grunt work, potentially expanding the horizon of possibility for audiences and allowing for deeper thought provocation. Everything left unsaid would come to life on screen, and the resulting strong sense of empathy that would permeate the audience proves the credibility of the rocky relationships portrayed within the novel.

Getting Back to Its Roots

At the end of the day, Fuller’s “Swimming Lessons” is still a novel. Although a film adaptation may be on the horizon, over 300 pages of beautifully handcrafted fiction lie between here and there.

Like many pop culture book and movie pairings, a riveting trailer and a paperback counterpart inching closer and closer to the top of the bestseller list often accompany one another. If this becomes the case, Fuller’s novel may get the full recognition it deserves as quite the modern literary masterpiece from those who may have never felt inclined to read it at the outset.

But, as always, you have to read the book before you see the movie.

So, before you grab your popcorn, get your hands on a copy of “Swimming Lessons” and breathe in that wonderfully musky smell of Times New Roman on crisply pressed pages as you flip hurriedly through the twists and turns of Gil and Ingrid’s fiery relationship, dying to know what’s next.

And then, when you’re wanting just that much more, to discover something about Gil or Ingrid or Flora so that you may in turn uncover a truth about yourself, maybe these characters will be there, holding out a hand to you from behind the fourth wall to help you take that extra step.

But, for now, happy reading!

Writer Profile

Natalie Sonier

Wake Forest University
English, Psychology

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