There’s a lot written about romance, about the search for love, lust and romantic adventure.
Barbara J. Zitwer’s The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society (Allen and Unwin) has its fair share of boy-meeets-girl narrative, it’s a nice love story which is enjoyable to watch develop. Interestingly though, it’s also quite a bit more than that. At its heart, Zitwer’s novel has friendship. It’s a lovely, quite unique story of the support and understanding that female friendship can provide over the years, with its listening, loyalty and laughter.
Joey, an overworked New York architect, has come to the Cotswolds to oversee the restoration of Stanway House – the stately home that inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan. But it hasn’t been easy. The local residents aren’t exactly welcoming, and then there’s the problem of the brooding caretaker, a man who seems to take every opportunity to undermine her plans. She soon begins to feel that she can’t do anything right.
Until, that is, she begins to take a daily dip with the members of the J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society in their private, watery Neverland. For Joey, meeting Aggie, Gala, Lilia and co. is a lift-changing experience, the beginning of a friendship that will transform her in the most remarkable of ways…
Joey is strong, independent and driven, but she’s also a little lonely. She finds some solace in her work, her running and the company of her pet dog Tink, but even she has to admit that she might just have let some people slip away:
“The first was Alex Wilder. He had been obsessed with keeping their relationship quiet, which meant that they never went out with other couples, never met any of Joey’s friends for a drink, never had people over for dinner or went to friends’ apartments or country houses. Now that he wasn’t in her life any more, Joey realised that she’d let a lot of her friendships go. She could think of five or six women she’d grown up with or known since NYU from whom she had just drifted away.”
Interestingly, it’s not a need for a man or a love-affair that’s presented as the antidote to her solitude, but rather, it’s true and equal friendship that’ll be the cure, the best example being seen in the ladies of the Swimming Society. The strength of the women’s camaraderie is wonderful to discover throughout this story.
Cleverly, although J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society is a very likeable story, Joey herself is not always a likeable character. She seems at times to be quite superficial and a horribly harsh judge of both herself and of the people around her, including her oldest friend Sarah:
“She found herself wondering why a decade of family life had affected Sarah’s appearance the way it had, yet exerted virtually no effect on Henry’s. Was it the result of Sarah having borne the children, of her spending too much time in the kitchen, of not having a work presence in the world and hence a work wardrobe to fit into, or of just not caring about her appearance any more? Whatever the reason, Joey vowed that if she ever did have children, she wouldn’t let herself go this way.”
Even though this was quite obviously a necessary part of the story, enabling for a lovely transformation at it’s conclusion, I still found it a little frustrating. I found myself thinking of many things that I would have liked to say to Joey had I the chance. Fortunately, characters such as Aggie and Sarah said them for me, helping me feel a real sense of resolution by the conclusion of the story.
Zitwer has written a very endearing, inspiring story with a lovely balance of personal journey, self discovery and nostalgia. The references to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan were well-placed and well-used and worked to make Joey’s story poetic and unique, and well worth reading.
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