Friday, June 26, 2020

Book Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland


Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bed rest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones and an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.


As a history buff, I love a good Historical Fiction book, I really liked the idea of Florence Adler Swims Forever being based on a real story of a family member of the author. The book takes place in Atlantic City in the years before WWII around the time when Hitler was rising to power in Germany, and while Hitler isn't the main point in the book it does, however, play an important part in one of the character's story.

The tragedy that befalls Florence happens surprisingly at the beginning of the book, and the rest of the book is the family trying to deal with processing what happened and their mourning. The Adlers are a very Jewish family and there are a lot of references of Jewish life in it, so if you are not familiar with some of them, you might have to look a few things up as a reference, for me, my family is Jewish so it was a very easy read. I actually finished the book in a day and a half because I was so interested in the lives of the main characters. 

The story is told from several points of view. To me the main character was Joseph Adler, I am not sure why he stood out so heavily to me, but honestly, all the characters pretty much had equal billing.  Frannie, the sister is pregnant, she is in the hospital throughout the book trying desperately to not go into premature labor. Her husband Issac is a bit of a dud, he fails at business and basically life. He works in the family business if you can call what he does working. The mother Esther, I found rather cold, however, she may just have had a hard time with the death of Florence, and the secret that she discovered Joseph had been keeping from her. Joseph the head of the family and the family's bakery business is understanding and kind and tries to keep the family together in so many ways, he also is the reason Anna is in the US, having left Germany to escape the unrest over there. Anna is the charge, her mother and Joseph knew each other as children, she is thoughtful, and will go to great lengths to try and get her parent to the US and out of Germany, even sacrificing her future. Stuart is the WASPy son of a wealthy hotelier, one which doesn't allow Jews inside. He loved Florence in his own way but knew she did not love him. He defies his father, not wanting his money, wanting to make it on his own, but things in his life change and he has to make a decision on to go into the family business or not. Then there is Gussie, she is Frannie and Issac's seven-year-old daughter. Gussie is wise and kind-hearted and loves Stuart. She was one of my favorite characters in the book.

Florence Adler Swims Forever is an epic family saga, and will draw on all the emotions you can imagine, from sadness to anger.It will make you question some of the choices the family made, and you will often ask yourself if you would have done something different. I had to tell myself this was a different time and maybe I didn't understand the ways of the world back then. The writing is beautiful and descriptive, the story is courageous and tender, and while the ending seemed a bit neatly tied up and predictable I really enjoyed the book. 

 (Thank you to Netgalley for the Advanced copy. Book publishes on July 7. 2020 )

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