Tuesday, April 13, 2004

'Swimming Naked' quick, refreshing

Cincinnatian's debut novel takes covers off family relationships

By Ann Hicks
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stacy Sims
Stacy Sims
First books are a pleasure to read. They are so well-crafted, most likely from numerous rewrites and scrupulous editing.

Swimming Naked by Cincinnati author Stacy Sims is a gem. It's funny, intense, sad, thought-provoking. I was hooked on the first page.

Pieces together past, present

This is Lucy Greene's story. It begins when she is 5 and her family - chain-smoking mom Fay, laid-back dad Frank and older sister Anna - head to the same cottage on a lake in Canada that they rent every summer.

The story quickly jumps ahead a couple of decades. Lucy is 30. Her mom is in the hospital. Lucy has left her job as a "noted curator of photography" in the Midwest to come to Florida to watch her mother die of lung cancer at age 58.

And so it goes, chapter by chapter: past, present, past, present as we piece together what has happened to bring them to this point.

Swimming Naked
By Stacy Sims (right)
Viking; $24.95
243 pages
Fay is a beauty, and her girls love her madly. She is unpredictable, though, something Lucy learns early on to watch out for. "My mother had a way of withholding herself from us that was in direct proportion to how much we needed her," Lucy confides.

Anna is temperamental, fearful, and above all, unreliable. She knows how sick her mother is but doesn't tell Lucy. When Fay is hospitalized, Anna is in rehab, leaving Lucy to cope alone. It's Anna's third try at shedding her addictions.

Lucy has her own problems: discontent, self-doubt. She admits she is most afraid of intimacy.

A freak accident at the lake changes everything, except the family trademark: Everyone ignores serious issues.

The title is taken from a secret adventure Lucy shares with her mom. One summer after arriving at the cottage, Fay takes her young daughter down to the lake. "Come on. We're going skinny dipping," Fay said to a shocked Lucy. Afterward, they look at the stars as Fay identifies one constellation after another. Lucy discovers the secret person inside her mother that night.

Readers share emotions

Swimming Naked is a quick read. Skipping from past to present chapter by chapter is effective because it breaks up the intense hospital scenes as Fay's condition deteriorates. The hurricane serves as a distraction for Lucy and the reader.

The author's descriptions of the drives to the lake are hilarious, especially for the reader who recalls sharing the back seat with her own sister.

You sense the undercurrents in the household during the girls' teen angst years made all the more disturbing by Anna's agoraphobia and alcoholism.

You share Lucy's fury as Anna, in a therapy session, blames a dumbfounded Fay for just about everything.

It is only when Lucy is able to put aside her anger and finds sorrow that she figures out a way to say goodbye.

Did they do the right thing?

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