Same Page Community Read: Florence Adler Swims Forever

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Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland, this year’s Same Page Community Read selection by the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL), takes place in Atlantic City, but is anything but a fun beach read. Winner of the 2020 National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction, it is instead an historical novel that brings to life a perilous time in world history. It is set in the summer of 1934, as Hitler is cracking down on Jews in Germany. Boycotts of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and shops began in 1933, and by 1935 Jews were not allowed to join the civil service or the army. In 1935, they were banned from marrying non-Jews, their bank accounts were confiscated, and their citizenship revoked—including their right to vote.

This character-driven family drama highlights the difficulty of getting Jews out of Europe, as well as the anti-semitism spreading through Europe and even in the United States. “Schools like Princeton and Yale… had, in the last several years, implemented strict quotas and new admissions standards to keep their classrooms from swelling with too many Jewish students.” Before World War II, “Jews were routinely discriminated against and barred from working in some fields of employment, barred from residing in certain properties, not accepted as members by elite social clubs, barred from resort areas and limited by quotas from enrolling in elite colleges” (Wikipedia.org).

Against this harrowing backdrop we meet Florence Adler, a 20-year-old star swimmer, home for the summer from Wellesley to Atlantic City, where her parents, Joseph and Esther Adler, are the Jewish owners of a successful commercial bakery. She is training to swim the English Channel later that summer, with her coach Stuart, who suffers from an unrequited love for Florence. She had already swum around their island the previous summer. Stuart’s businessman father owns a swanky hotel on the Boardwalk that does not accept Jewish guests.

Florence’s sister Fannie, mother of the precocious seven-year-old Gussie (short for Augusta), is pregnant and on bedrest in the hospital because she lost a baby to an early labor the previous year. Her husband Isaac works for Joseph at the bakery, but is a feckless spendthrift who is too busy pursuing various get-rich-quick schemes to either take care of Gussie or visit his wife in the hospital. Add to this cast of characters the 19-year-old Jewish refugee Anna, who, with Joseph’s help, left Germany before things got any worse and has been accepted at the New Jersey State Teachers College. Joseph and Anna, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, are fervently trying to obtain visas for Anna’s parents—a task made difficult by both German and U.S. authorities. Joseph’s reasons for helping this family are the result of a long-held secret that is revealed over the course of the novel.

Author Rachel Beanland

The plot is set in motion when, in the first chapter, Florence, wearing her signature red swimming cap, heads out into the ocean on a solitary training swim and drowns—in spite of the lifeguards’ too-late deployment of a rescue boat. Each character handles this terrible tragedy differently. Esther, devastated at the loss of her youngest daughter, determines to keep the news away from Fannie for fear it will result in another early labor. Her request for the entire family to participate in this secret-keeping generates the book’s many conflicts. In trying to convince her to keep the secret from her mother, Anna and Stuart convince Gussie—the most endearing character in the novel—that she is now a member of a secret club called the Florence Adler Swims Forever Society. 

We experience Jewish customs surrounding death as their friend and funeral home director recites the Vidui over Florence’s dead body in the hospital tent on the beach, with Joseph and Esther joining in. After her body is taken home, “the women of the Chevra Kadisha observed the ritual of Tharah, washing Florence’s body and dressing it in the tachrichim they’d brought for the occasion.” Joseph sits guard over the body all night. The next morning, Esther covers all the mirrors in the apartment to discourage shallow vanity among the family as well as guests who will sit Shiva with them. Before leaving for the cemetery, Joseph tears his suit jacket and Esther chooses instead to wear a frayed ribbon, symbolizing abject mourning. At the burial in a nearby Jewish cemetery, the family passes the shovel between them so each family member adds some dirt to the grave. They sit Shiva for the next week (shiva means seven in Hebrew)—Joseph in a rented beach chair and lit candle in his office, Esther at home where the Rabbi chants the Kaddish prayer. “We sit Shiva so we can have the time to look inward, to properly reflect on our loss, but we invite the community in because mourning is intensely lonely, and our friends and family can offer comfort,” Rabbi Levy explains. 

Beanland uses an original and effective structure, with each chapter focusing on a different family member while still advancing the plot. It is a rich story which, as we learn in an author’s note, is based on the life of author’s great-great-aunt, Florence Lowenthal—including her dream of swimming the English Channel, her 1929 drowning, Fannie’s confinement, and the keeping of the secret. Other aspects of the plot, such as Stuart’s devotion and Isaac’s recklessness, are invented. Beanland’s writing flows smoothly, her characters are well developed and engaging—especially Gussie—and her dialogue authentic. The book is a heartfelt portrait of a family in crisis, how each character handles it, and all the consequences to which it gives rise—both joyful and heartbreaking.

The novel’s focus on the history of antisemitism and the beauty of Jewish traditions could not be more relevant today. Overall, the novel is engrossing, but flawed. Some of the events—such as Anna’s taking swimming lessons from Stuart and Gussie’s running away to the train station to follow her neglectful father—require a suspension of disbelief. The ending is satisfying, but perhaps too neatly wrapped up.

The 2024 Same Page program kicked off on March 1, with free books available at each branch while supplies last. The book was discussed by the Crozet Library Monday Night Book Group March 4 at the Library. 

Rachel Beanland will present a reading and book discussion at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 20 at the Jefferson School (blog.jmrl.org/2024/01/04/2024-same-page-community-read/) in conjunction with the Virginia Festival of the Book. The Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, with hundreds of author presentations, literary conversations, and festive events all over Charlottesville from March 20 to 24 (www.vabook.org). 

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