The title of Rachel Beanland’s new novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, leads readers to believe they are cracking the spine of a light beach read about a bygone era. The first few chapters reward these expectations, as the reader is immersed in the world of 1930s Atlantic City. Yet the book soon takes a turn, tackling emotional themes and a storyline that becomes increasingly complex by the page.
What makes this novel fascinating is there are not many stories depicting Jewish immigrants already living for a generation in America in 1934. The novel centers on a Jewish family no longer struggling to assimilate, but rather dealing with the challenges of economic survival, antisemitism, and intermarriage.
It’s hard to imagine this novel being written in the 1930s. The space between now and then, however, has given us time to reflect on the way Jews were discriminated against and women disempowered during this era. In this novel, even though a wealthy man doesn’t let Jews stay in his hotel, his son can still fall in love with a Jew; even though women have very little power in society, a father can decide that he would prefer his daughter to have a meaningful job rather than stay in her unhappy marriage. Though it is unlikely these realities would have taken place or been written about in the 1930s, it makes for a thought provoking read in the twenty-first century.
Beanland’s portrayal of the hardships of obtaining immigration papers to get from Europe to America during the prewar years feels painfully accurate. The endless, exhaustive, Sisyphean hoops the American Jews jumped through, desperately trying to help their friends in Germany escape, but which often lead nowhere. These chapters of the book also feel incredibly relevant to our current moment, in which it is increasingly difficult for those fleeing life-threatening circumstances to find safety in America.
Despite the serious tone and content, the book is by and large an uplifting and fast-paced read. Beanland delves into what precludes climactic events more than the moments themselves; the tensions that hold the reader throughout the novel are explored fully, while the reader is left wondering whether certain figures are saved from the horrors of the Holocaust, and what the fate of certain romantic entanglements will be.