A coming-of-age story about a young girl’s growing awareness—of sexuality, loss, and family truths.
Jaffe’s debut novel begins quietly, like a swimmer’s sleek dive into a pool. Pools and swimming feature prominently in this haunting story about a girl struggling in a family blighted by the departure, years earlier, of her older brother, who was a star competitive swimmer. Fifteen-year-old Julie lives with her parents, who are quiet and hands-off to the point of near-absence. When an older student, Alexis, suggests Julie join the swim team along with her best friend, Erika, Julie’s response is ambivalent—she hasn’t swum for a long time and warily defines swimming as her brother’s world. Competitive swimming is clearly both Julie’s fascination and some kind of nemesis, but she’s encouraged by Alexis’ interest, which is distractingly intense. A flirtatious and powerful attraction grows between the two girls, one Julie is quietly committed to acknowledging but Alexis, with a boyfriend and “popular girl” visibility, is less so. As Julie struggles to deal with her relationship with Alexis, to compete as a swimmer, to conduct herself appropriately at parties, and to be a good friend to the increasingly boy-crazy Erika, we relive the awkward agonies of adolescence, so well-sketched by Jaffe. With writerly acuteness, Jaffe focuses close attention on materials—the clutch of a too-tight swimsuit, the comfort of a warm sweatshirt—maybe because adolescence is so much about trying to fit inside external layers or because clothes can have outsize importance before real self-definition takes place. But Julie moves slowly and steadily toward that, finding the honest people she needs and eventually even finding her way to the truth about her brother.
Moving sideways with its weight of secrets, this novel never strikes a false note.