by Nicola Keegan
Published by Knopf
320 pages, 2009
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Philomena Ash, of Glenwood, Kansas, is a swimming prodigy. She’s tall and strong, with enormous feet and broad shoulders. Her coaches watch and whisper as she steadily breaks Kansas swim records like bundles of dried twigs. By the time she’s sixteen, the word Olympics is being whispered. But other things are going on.
Philomena -- Mena, Phil, or most often, Pip -- is the second of four daughters. Father Leonard is a professor specializing in bats, her mother a homemaker. The family is devoutly Catholic, sending the girls to parochial school and attending Sunday Mass. But no amount of prayer works when eldest daughter Bronwyn falls ill with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Formerly a pretty, hair-tossing teenager whose quick, cruel tongue made her a debating team star, Bron is now reduced to a skinny, bedridden, enraged huddle. Pip, who shares a bedroom with Bron, must not only watch Bron’s slow deterioration but endure her bitterness. Bron’s cruelty is now honed by rage, a verbal knife she wields at every opportunity, demanding poor Pip acknowledge the inevitable. And though Pip possesses a lively internal dialogue, before her sister she falls mute. The two manage only one honest exchange shortly before Bron’s death, which puts the family in free fall.
Leonard spends more time away from the family, flying his small airplane the way others take long drives. He stops attending church. Tears stream down his face at all times; he eventually ignores them, crying as he eats or speaks with his shell-shocked daughters.
Pip’s mother fares far worse. She becomes overwhelmed by anxiety attacks and retreats to bed, where she is visited by a steady stream of nuns, priests, and what Pip balefully calls “the Dark Catholics,” religious adherents who adore a tragedy.
Catholicism in its stereotypically worst form is almost a character in the novel: the nuns, both nasty and kind, emasculated, soft-handed priests, the rebellious children they attempt to shepherd through school. Alcohol is nowhere to be found amongst these gentle devoted: rather, they are a congregation of sweet eaters, all their worldly longings focused on the sponges and black forest cakes awaiting them after Mass. Their efforts to comforts the Ash family are met with mixed results. Leonard, Pip, and sister Roxanne ignore them. Roxanne, in her early teens, is already well on her way to the drug addiction that will nearly kill her. Only their mother and sister Dot listen to the cake bearers.
The situation worsens when Leonard’s plane goes down. Whether accidental or deliberate, the circumstances of the crash are never made clear. What is clear the Ash family’s disintegration. Roxanne’s pot smoking is no longer hidden. Dot makes so much effort toward goodness that Pip fears she’ll become a nun. Pip, for her part, has ceased functioning. She no longer swims with her team, preferring to lie around the house eating junk food and watching television. Only June, daughter of a wayward neighbor, keeps the family together, cooking, cleaning, and generally keeping the peace. Pip finds comfort only in June’s steadfastness, even when June has a little too much to drink.
After months of doing nothing, Pip returns to swimming, this time in earnest. Her talent attracts the attention of Stanford University übercoach Ernest Mankovitz, who convinces Pip’s mother her daughter needs training with true athletes. Pip flies to Colorado, where she lives with a host family and works with young women aiming for the Olympic trials. The experience is life-changing. Suddenly there is somebody advising Pip on everything: how to breathe, how to kick, how to lift weights. There are rules about what to eat and activities to be avoided -- rollerskating, bicycling -- lest they invite injury. Every moment of Pip’s waking existence is bounded by water. She is nearly perfectly happy.
Except she still sees Bronwyn at the bottom of the pool and dreams of Leonard. She’s worried about her mother, who is existing on a liquid concoction prepared by the Dark Catholics. These thoughts are never far from her mind as she blasts through the trials, beaten only by the steroid-enhanced East Germans. At the 1984 Olympics, gold medals fall like rain, and Pip, to her shock, breaks down on the podium.
After the Olympics Pip is given a full scholarship to Stanford, where she eagerly sucks up English literature, has a few romances, and swims even more. She wins more, breaks records, acquires an agent. Back home her mother remains in bed, tended by June. Roxanne moves to New York, then vanishes. Dot marries badly.
Pip’s athletic career soars. Around her, teammates are retiring to become doctors or therapists, to marry and begin families. Pip has neither the interest nor understanding required to live a functional adult life. She spreads a sleeping bag on the floor of her condo, drives her snazzy Jeep to the pool, and swims some more. She has an ugly relationship with an unkind man. And then disaster strikes: a torn labrum. At twenty-eight, Pip Ash is forced to retire from the only thing she knows how to do. She falls apart.
Keegan has caught not only the world of competitive swimming, but the problems professional athletes face when their careers end. Broadly speaking, these people are still young, often no older than 30. But a lifetime devoted to sport has left no room for the cultivation of other skills, and those who don’t find niches in coaching or television are often left to fend for themselves. Though Pip is offered work giving motivational speeches and coaching, her handlers -- her coach, the people who have told her what to eat, how to stretch, what to think -- don’t want to discuss her feelings about forced retirement. As she crumbles, all they can cry is “come back to work!,” never realizing how painful it is for Pip to watch younger, healthier swimmers.
The prose is graceful and rapid, as if Keegan set out to write sentences as flowing as the medium she writes of. Her descriptions of races are rendered in sentences as clipped and rapid as the heats themselves. On what Pip calls “dryland,” she is often a silent, blushing personage, but occasionally the joker rises to the surface. Confronted by the hemp-wearing, tea-drinking nutritionist about her sugar habit, she replies “O yea verily.” Watching Roxanne fumble through a holiday meal, she asks: “Been dabbling in ye olde bong juice again?”
In the grand tradition of finding oneself by fleeing, Pip finds a horrible garret in Paris, where she begins the work of creating a non-swimming self, a person who never properly mourned her father and sister. She watches from afar as her remaining family members find a sort of equilibrium -- each of them, in their way, learning to live on dry land. | August 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.