Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really loved this book. Not all of this book, but most. And I absolutely think it's because I grew up as a swimmer. So I will start this review with a disclaimer: To all childhood competitive swimmers, read this book. Everyone else . . . take your chances. Because I cannot speak to the experience of reading this book without waves of recognition and nostalgia and the desire to point and shout, "Yes! I did/saw/smelled/felt that, too!" However, I suspect that without those feelings, I would probably not like this book nearly as much, and that suspicion is due to the fact that the parts of the memoir that I didn't like were virtually everything that fell outside of the realm of competitive swimming–namely, Shapton's art career and her never-ending tour of strange and exotic swimming pools.
That is not to say that I did not appreciate the inclusion of Shapton's artwork throughout the book; in fact I adored it. The change in medium and, consequently, in pace, really made the memoir a thought-provoking experience rather than just a story. However, anything she had to say about painting I almost entirely glossed over, just like every time her adult self climbed into a random Italian pool, I started skipping paragraphs.
Her accounts of swim meets, however, of practices, of not wanting to swim yet feeling the insatiable compulsion, of the agony of jumping into cold water in the dark hours of the morning . . . all of those things were so spot on, it's hard to believe I never wrote these depictions myself. The tone of the book as a whole is self-reflective and slightly subdued, as if Shapton herself is submerged as she writes it, in the shaded part of a cool, shallow pool. She recounts her feelings of ambition and competitiveness by showing us how she visualized her races while she waited for her breakfast to finish microwaving. Yet we don't feel the rush of adrenaline, of antsy competitive spirit so many athletes have when they talk about their sport. Shapton is calm, analytical, viewing herself with adult eyes, eyes that have already seen herself come short of the mark and be forced to accept that reality.
I will reiterate: any and every childhood competitive swimmer should read this book. You will find gems inside that will conjure up habits you forgot you had and rituals you forgot you followed. You will find yourself missing your stiff, chlorine-bleached hair and the simplicity of counting against a clock. But it's always there, the pool, and Swimming Studies reminds us that, if we choose to, we can jump right back in.
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