Review by: Jennifer Furl

5/01/02

Swimming Toward the Ocean
By Carole Glickfeld

 

The night I was supposed to finish Carole Glickfeld’s novel Swimming Toward the Ocean, I stayed out too late and fell asleep on the subway ride home to my Brooklyn apartment. When I woke up a couple of stops past mine, I jumped off the train so quickly that I realized only after the doors closed that I had left the book on the Coney Island-bound F train. And so Glickfeld's novel headed back to where it began – Coney Island – where Chenia Arnow, a middle-aged Russian émigré, finds herself pregnant in the 1950s with her third child, who is also the novel’s narrator.

With two kids already and a husband whose meager pay suspiciously never matches his overtime hours, Chenia is determined to miscarry and her various efforts to do so include jumping rope on an ice-slick roof to taking a bath in scalding hot water. She finally gives up and succumbs to the child’s will to be born but not before she meets Harry Taubman, a man in a green fedora who kindly helps her on the beach after her attempt at drowning. Harry’s presence in Chenia’s life makes her question how she has lived so long without feeling sexual pleasure and romantic friendship. The feelings also prompt Chenia to begin making the decisions that affect her life, rather than relying on her Old World superstitions (wearing garlic to ward off the evil eye) or simply reacting to her circumstances (hiding in the bathroom when her husband strikes her).

As Chenia intellectually grasps her independence, the novel examines that gray area between choosing a destiny and living out a pre-destined life. In Russia, Chenia’s focus was on survival, but America opens up a world that she never knew existed, one where she can choose to commit adultery or explore art in New York City’s museums. But political freedom cannot erase the more difficult emotional decisions of life such as feeling guilty or falling in love. Chenia tries to ease her guilt by making increasingly drastic decisions about her life, including suicide attempts, and she often jumps headfirst without thinking about the consequences of her actions, which puts her in even more desperate predicaments. Still, this lack of foresight is part of what makes her such a lovable character. Chenia’s Yiddish wit, a ready willingness to speak her mind, and insatiable curiosity melt the hearts of suitors and readers alike. As an immigrant, she has not developed a sense of what is proper and conventional behavior in America, and this allows those around her to relax and be themselves.

Although the novel begins when Chenia is in her 40s, she comes of age throughout its pages, eventually becoming disillusioned with being in love and discovering her husband’s infidelity. As a divorcee, she builds another relationship that is not based on youth or sex or boundless admiration. She learns that physical attraction can take a backseat to loyalty and companionship. By this point in her life, she consciously takes her time in deciding to pursue a relationship without passion.

This decision puts Chenia on one of life’s safer paths (though admittedly boring), and the novel seems to tie itself up into a neat package. But Glickfeld is not through with her story yet. While Chenia has never swum toward the depths of self-analysis, her daughter Devorah is obsessed with her mother’s life and reconstructing its story. This quality makes Devorah an inspired narrator but a desperate character in the last section of the novel when she tries to pin down the meaning of Chenia’s life and how it has affected her own choices and mistakes. While the main story was resolved a little too neatly during Devorah’s pre-teen years, Glickfeld would have been better off gracefully taking an exit. When I read novels, I always wish that I could just see what happened to the main players -- where they ended up in thirty years, if they married, how they die, but one of the hardest jobs of an author is knowing when to make the reader want for more. Glickfeld passes this opportunity by and tries to explain too much in her last few pages. (This is actually the part when I lost my book, and I wasn’t able to read the ending until I went to the library a few days later.)

Devorah is suddenly middle-aged in the last section, and the story makes a radical shift to become about her rather than Chenia. After reading more than three hundred entertaining pages about Chenia and how she has negotiated life, the novel reduces Chenia’s story to an explanation of Devorah’s problems and neuroses. A few offhand comparisons between mother and daughter and a forced meaningful exchange near the end of the book are disappointing because it trivializes the careful examination of Chenia’s life.

Despite the ending, the novel is still about Chenia and her life. She tortures herself over some of her choices and punishes herself for others, but ultimately she acquires a sort of wisdom that allows her to treat everything she’s been through as part of a life that continually teaches and seeks and provides.

ISBN: 0385721765

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