Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets in this stunning debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Manhattan Beach and The Dollhouse.
Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.
Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.
Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.
When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.
Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones and an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to divulge something that happens in the very first chapter, is it?
When I picked up Florence Adler Swims Forever, my expectation was that the main story line would focus on Florence and her training to swim the English Channel. Wouldn’t you think so, based on the title, the cover, and the synopsis? Well, if so, you’d be as misled as I was.
While the opening chapter is about a day at the beach, as told by 7-year-old Gussie, who adores her aunt Florence, by the end of the chapter, Florence has drowned. She’s pulled lifeless from the ocean where she went for just her typical long swims, and despite heroic efforts by the beach lifeguards, Florence is beyond saving.
Florence’s sister Fannie is hospitalized on bedrest with a high-risk pregnancy, and doctors warn that any stress or upset might cause Fannie to lose the baby. Their mother Esther decides on a plan: They will keep Florence’s death quiet, keep all announcements out of the papers, have a private family burial — and will not tell Fannie that her only sister has died.
Fannie and Florence had quarreled right before the books opens, and Fannie is left to believe that Florence is still angry at her, not communicating or visiting with her sister before leaving for France to start her big swim. The family brings the nurses and doctors of the maternity ward into the circle of secrecy, and by moving her to a private room and limiting her access to news of the outside world, they’re able to keep Fannie in the dark for the remaining months of her pregnancy.
Meanwhile, the Adler family must struggle through their private grief, running a successful bakery business, dealing with an untrustworthy son-in-law, and hosting Anna, a European refugee with a connection to Esther’s husband Joseph, who’s desperate to find a way to get her parents out of Germany before it’s too late.
This book has so much going for it. The Altantic City of 1934 setting is a wonder, showcasing life in that particular time and place with attention to detail and evocative descriptions. The beach environment, the ritzy hotels, the large Jewish community all feel vibrant and alive, as do the people themselves, with their relationships, their struggles for success, the aftermath of the Depression and the rising tensions about the increasingly desperate plight of the Jews in Europe.
Through small moments, such as characters discussing the price of bread or going to a restaurant for a business meetings, we get an idea of the economics of the time, as well as the chasms between haves and have-nots. We also get a good picture of Atlantic City development, and the lingering anti-Semitism that pervades even a location with such a large Jewish population.
There are also some truly eye-popping moments. For example, did you know that up through the end of the 1930s, premature babies in incubators were displayed as sideshow attractions at World’s Fairs and along the boardwalk? It’s true! I couldn’t believe it when the scene was described in this book, but yup — I had to stop and Google it, and discovered that this was how incubator technology was established before being adopted as standard medical procedure, and that thousands of premature babies were saved through these exhibits. Crazy, right? (Read more here, if interested.)
The subplot about Anna’s parents is sad and scary and eye-opening as well. We all know what happened to German Jews as Hitler rose to power, and it’s heart-breaking to get this view of the practically impossible steps that friends and relatives had to go through in order to try to secure visas for their loved ones. Without money or political connection, there was basically no chance. We really feel Anna’s anguish and frustration as she keeps attempting to rescue her parents, only to find the bar moved higher every time she approaches the stated goal.
While the Adler family’s story is compelling and I loved the historical setting, there are just a few elements that left me wanting more. There a romance that develops over the summer showcased in this story, and I just couldn’t feel it. I never truly felt the connection between the characters, so it was hard to buy into their love story and its outcome.
Likewise, we’re told that the hotel mentioned in the synopsis is well known for anti-Semitic policies, but we don’t actually see that demonstrated. The owner, who’s the father of one of the POV characters, is supposed to be nasty and ruthless, but again, I didn’t truly get that from his portrayal.
Florence Adler Swims Forever takes place over the summer months following Florence’s death. The ending left me wanting more. I’ll be vague here (no more spoilers!), but I felt pretty cheated by not getting to see a particular scene I had assumed would be included. I’d also hoped to get a definite answer about Anna’s parents and whether they’d be rescued, but because the story ends where it does, that remains an unknown.
I will say that the author’s notes at the end are illuminating, as they help to ground the events of the story, which may come across as far-fetched in places, in her own family’s history.
All in all, I found Florence Adler Swims Forever to be a compelling, absorbing read, despite feeling like I needed a little more from the characters and the story as a whole to move this into 5-star territory. Still, I definitely recommend this book, and can see it being a great book group choice as well — there’s so much to think about and discuss.