'The Swimmers' review: Julie Otsuka's brilliant novel about routine and identity In Julie Otsuka's novel, a rag-tag group of regulars is disrupted when a crack appears at the bottom of the community pool. The Swimmers explores how mundane routines shape our days.


Book Reviews

Still waters run deep in 'The Swimmers,' a brilliant novel about routine and identity

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This is FRESH AIR. It's been a long wait for fans of novelist Julie Otsuka. Her previous novel, "The Buddha In The Attic," was published 10 years ago and became a finalist for the National Book Award. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, who counts herself among Otsuka's fans, says her new novel, "The Swimmers," was worth the wait. Here's Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In Julie Otsuka's new novel called "The Swimmers," a ragtag group of regulars shows up every day, many of them for years, to swim laps in a university pool. One day, a crack the length of a wire appears at the bottom near the drain, then another, reproducing in spider-like clusters all over the bottom of the swimming pool. When the pool is shut down for safety reasons, the collective daily rhythm of the swimmers' lives abruptly stops. One swimmer is particularly affected by this rupture in the pattern of the every day. Her name is Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia. We're told that even though Alice may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water, she knows what to do. Untethered from the practice of those repetitive daily laps, Alice's mind floats free. "The Swimmers" is a slim, brilliant novel about the value and beauty of mundane routines that shape our days and identities. Or maybe it's a novel about the cracks that inevitably will one day appear to undermine our own bodies and minds. And who knows? It could also be read as a grand parable about the crack in the world wrought by this pandemic.

Otsuka's signature spare style as a writer unexpectedly suits her capacious vision, as she did in her celebrated 2011 novel "The Buddha In The Attic," about so-called Japanese picture brides brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s to wed men they didn't know. Otsuka tells her story in short block paragraphs written mostly in the collective first-person. The narrators of the opening section of her novel are the we of "The Swimmers." In the second part, the we is the institutional voice of the nursing home where Alice winds up. The ending section takes us into the mind of Alice's adult daughter - desolate, guilty, exhausted. You'd think the subjects here and this choral type of narration would make for a cold, impersonal dirge of a novel. Instead, "The Swimmers" has the verve and playfulness of spoken-word poetry. Listen to this opening mega sentence where "The Swimmers" collectively introduce themselves.

(Reading) In our real lives up above, we are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters - just one more row - secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans, mom, an undocumented immigrant, a nun, a Dane, a cop, an actor who just plays a cop on TV - Officer Mahoney - a two-time nominee for outstanding professor of the year, a nationally ranked Go player, two Roses - Rose and the other Rose - one Ida, one Alice, one self-described nobody - don't mind me - one former member of the SDS, two convicted felons, addicted, enabled, embattled, embittered, out-of-print, out of luck, in our prime, in a rut, in a rush, in remission, in the third week of chemo, in deep and unrelenting emotional despair. You never get used to it. But down below at the pool, we are only one of three things - fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.

With "The Swimmers," Otsuka is plunging into chlorinated waters that John Cheever has pretty much had all to himself since 1964. I'm thinking, of course, of Cheever's classic short story, "The Swimmer," which was later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster. Cheever's swimmer, Neddy, was solitary, paddling his way one surreal summer's day through a series of backyard suburban pools as within the space of hours summer turned into fall and Neddy himself aged. What is it about swimming, the doggedness of all those repetitive laps that invites these thoughts about mortality and the meaning of it all?

I thought that we could stay down here forever, says one of Otsuka's shocked swimmers when the pool closure is announced. It all went by so fast, says another. But I was so happy in my lane, protests a side-stroker named Irene. Alice says, me too. "The Swimmers," perhaps because of the variety of voices Otsuka assembles, glides lightly through these philosophical waters, more lightly, I think, than Cheever's metaphor-heavy short story did. But why compare? There's room enough for all in this Olympic-sized existential pool.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Swimmers" by Julie Otsuka. You can hear my interview with Julia Otsuka on our website or our podcast.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Marie Yovanovitch, who was appointed ambassador to Ukraine by President Obama and became the target of a smear campaign during the Trump administration when Trump was surging in Ukraine for dirt on Hunter Biden. After declining to pledge her loyalty to Trump, she was fired. She testified at his first impeachment. Now she has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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