The ideal beach read is often no more than the literary equivalent of an umbrella drink: light, frothy, and sweet. Although Holly LeCraw’s ambitious debut novel, The Swimming Pool, is none of those things, it’s worth packing with the beach towels and sunscreen anyway. LeCraw has a keen eye for details, and even if some of the dialogue doesn’t ring quite true, her writing is compelling enough to keep readers engrossed, even on vacation.
The Swimming Pool focuses on the ripple effects following an illicit affair between Marcella Atkinson and her neighbor, Cecil McClatchey. In the course of the affair, secrets begat secrets and lies begat lies, damning and damaging two families in the process: Cecil McClatchey’s wife Becky is murdered, and Cecil, an uncharged suspect, dies shortly thereafter. The book opens seven years after the affair, with Marcella and her now ex-husband Anthony still dealing with the fallout.
The veil of secrets, lies, and deceptions prevents Marcella and Anthony from seeing each other clearly, and this is a theme that LeCraw returns to again and again. Marcella craves her lovers’ recognition on some level deeper than her beauty, and for her the most meaningful moments are those, however brief, in which she feels truly “seen”: “Their glances tangled and she knew she was staring, as if at a picture, and at the same time offering a picture of herself. Here I am. Please see me. She felt, for a moment, both naked and completely unselfconscious.” This innate need for validation causes her to take risks, inevitably leading her to have an affair. Ironically, these actions guarantee that she puts a distance between herself and others, obfuscaiting her “truth.”
Although romantic relationships seem to drive the plot, including Marcella’s Oedipal romance with Cecil’s son, Jed, LeCraw’s depiction of the bond between parents and children rings truest. The one remaining thread that connects Marcella and Anthony is their daughter, Toni. Marcella knows Toni “better than anyone in the world, she knew her in her bones, the way mothers were supposed to,” and she doubts that her own mother knew her so well: “Was that where it started? The yearning to be known?” she wonders. “She would do anything to spare Toni that search. It was the desire that led to all trouble.”
LeCraw drives the point home when another character, Jed’s sister Callie, suffers from postpartum depression and feels disconnected from everyone, including her own infant—a situation that nearly leads to tragic consequences. Jed visits his sister in the hospital, musing over what they’ve lost since their mother died. This is when the mother is supposed to come,” he thinks. “This was when the mother appears and the chaos reorders itself around her and she becomes the sun, with planets revolving in their courses. This was when the polestar should appear in the sky, true north unwavering, all questions quieted.” But of course their mother has been dead seven years. She’s not going to appear, though it’s nevertheless possible, as LeCraw shows, for the universe to reorder itself—if not exactly in the manner of a typical chick-lit novel.
As beach reads go, The Swimming Pool isn’t a frothy pina colada—it’s a salty margarita. There are moments when the writing is perfect , and there’s unexpected depth to the story. It’s sexy enough to provide a dollop of summer escapism, and there’s a genuine sweetness in these flawed characters that makes them ring very true.
Holly LeCraw will sign copies of The Swimming Pool at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on May 4 at 7 p.m.