Samhain Publishing, $4.50, ISBN 1-59998-443-1
Contemporary Fiction, 2007
My first thought when I finish Rebecca James’s Nightswimming is an incredulous, “First time author? You have to be kidding me. Are you sure this is not some long-time mainstream fiction author hiding behind a pseudonym?”
The title of this book comes from the song of same name by REM from their album Automatic for the People. The song has these lines:
You, I thought I knew you.
You I cannot judge.
You, I thought you knew me,
This one laughing quietly underneath my breath. Nightswimming.
I believe the above lines describe very well what heroine Sarah undergoes when her marriage to Brett cracks apart when Brett cheats on with the neighbor Claudia. Brett and Sarah aren’t the most functional couple around in the first place since they both have issues and insecurities. Both are from unhappy homes and therefore they are both ill-prepared to deal with Sarah’s unexpected pregnancy. Nightswimming presents a heartbreaking look into the lives of all key players involved – including secondary characters whose lives are intertwined with Brett’s and Sarah’s – during this tumultuous period.
If the mention of adultery isn’t warning enough, let me say it straight up that this one is more of a mainstream women’s fiction rather than a romance novel because it deals with what happens when love and reality collide rather than how two people find a perfect happily-ever-after. Nonetheless it has a very strong and obvious emotional core in its story. The ending doesn’t fit the definition of one if we want to go by the rules of the romance genre, but it is the perfect ending in my opinion. It defines this story very well – the ending is about hope and promises. It’s about Brett finally growing up and realizing what is important to him. And, given the way the story has been going to this point, definitely more realistic and poignant than any happy ending with a forced reunion and a fake happy ending.
I find it very hard to write a review for this book that does it justice because there are so many things about it that affect me strongly. Ms James is like some kind of scary violin player that makes me laugh or cry with the music she is playing. One thing that stands out to me is how real and honest this story comes off as. It will be easy to single out Brett as a villain in this story, but Ms James instead makes him heartbreakingly human. He’s an asshole, he’s a jerk, but ultimately, he comes off like someone who has no clue and, given time and the maturity that comes with time, he may just turn out to be alright. In short, he’s a normal person with strengths as well as weaknesses. I think I know a few Bretts in real life.
Likewise, Sarah is a well-drawn character. This story is mostly from her point of view and boy, she really comes off as a sensitively-drawn and most real character. She too has to learn some lessons in life and she does this while making me laugh with her, root for her, or grit my teeth in frustration at her. Sometimes I want to shake her and tell her to forget Brett for good, other times I find myself cheering her on.
The writing in this book is wonderful. Ms James has me hanging on to every word from the first page. The tone of the story is just right – it’s whimsical when it comes to portraying hopes and dreams and when it comes to heartbreak, Ms James ruthlessly cuts my heart to pieces along with Sarah’s or Brett’s. Yes, I even sniffle and shed a tear or two when Brett is hurting.
Nightswimming isn’t an easy read because some of the scenes here feel too real and therefore too painful for me to sit through without steeling myself first. Yes, I’m a bit of a pushover like that when an author knows how to play my feelings like a violin and somehow someone must have told Ms James how to get to me like that, heh.
I know some readers must be put off by the adultery and the constant reiterations on my part as to how this book doesn’t exactly fit the definition of “romance novel”. But it’s nonetheless a love story about love, heartbreak, and epiphanies, featuring very realistically depicted emotions and characters. This book, in my opinion, is too good to be ignored just because some things here push your hot buttons. Go on, take a plunge with Nightswimming. You can always send me a hate-mail if you don’t like it.