This reading group guide for Florence Adler Swims Forever includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets in this stunning debut novel. Atlantic City, 1934.
Get a FREE ebook by joining our mailing list today!
Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.
Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.
Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.
When tragedy strikes during one of Florence’s practice swims, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth about what happened from Fannie—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.
Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions
and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl
, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones, and is an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.Topics & Questions for Discussion (12–-15 Discussion Questions)
1. Florence Adler Swims Forever
opens with Florence’s death and ends with the birth of Fannie’s baby. In what ways do life and death frame this novel?
2. Early on, Gussie says that Florence always spoke to her like both a “beloved child and a trusted grown-up” (4). Apart from Florence, how do the other adults in Gussie’s life treat her? Do you think it was right to send her to live with Esther for the summer, or appropriate to make her keep such a big secret from her mother?
4. In the early 1930s, Atlantic City was seen as the “Jewish Riviera” of the East Coast. In what ways do you see Jewish culture celebrated within this community? In what ways do you see it under threat?
5. Describe Fannie and Florence’s relationship. Do they have roles that they fall into? What do you think is gained by a seven-year age gap? What complications are introduced?
6. When Florence dies, Esther’s first instinct is to keep Florence’s death a secret to protect Fannie and her pregnancy. Discuss how others respond to this request. If you were in each character’s shoes, do you think you could have kept this secret?
7. When Joseph and Stuart go to see Florence’s ship sail out of New York, Joseph explains that “you give your children every possible chance” in life (188). What chances do the parents in this book give their children? Do these chances come with sacrifice? What chances seem to carry more weight—Anna’s parents sending her away (financial), the Adlers supporting Florence’s dreams (emotional), or Fannie staying on bed rest so her child can be healthy (physical)? Is one any more important than another?
8. When Anna visits Fannie at the hospital and reads to her from Tender Is the Night,
she tells her that “we’re all beholden to someone” (228). Who are the various characters “beholden” to in this novel? Are they willingly so, or are they bound by structures that seem unshakeable—like marriage, faith, or secrets?
9. Fannie is devastated by the death of her infant son, Hyram. Her mother, Esther, doesn’t understand her grief, saying he doesn’t need a gravestone because Fannie “didn’t need a place to go and wallow” (33). What does it mean to Fannie to be pregnant again? How do these two mothers—Fannie and Esther—handle the death of their respective children?
10. The rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism in Germany, which had monumental effects on the lives of Jewish people in Europe leading into World War II, is a lingering threat throughout the book. Did anything surprise you about the experiences of Anna and her family? How would you have felt in their position?
11. How do you feel about Anna and Stuart’s love story? What do they each bring to the relationship? Why do you think they are drawn to each other?
12. Near the end of the novel, Joseph strikes a deal with Isaac to entice him to leave the family forever. What do you think of Isaac’s decision? Do you think—if he stayed—that he could have changed? Or was he meant to pursue something different with his life?
13. The novel ends without the reader learning of Fannie’s reaction to the news of Florence’s death and Isaac’s departure. Based on what you know about Fannie, how do you think she took the news? What do you think her life looks like after these revelations? How would you have reacted if put in the same position?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Florence Adler Swims Forever
is based on a true story from Rachel Beanland’s family. Share a story that is often retold and referred to in your own family. What does this story say about your family’s understanding of its past? What has it meant to you in your own life?
2. A core theme of the book is that swimming is equated with freedom, power, and a lack of self-consciousness. Consider taking a trip to the local YMCA or to the ocean to swim as a group. Do you feel the same way about the water as Florence does? Or maybe you feel more like Gussie—preferring the stories of the water to the swimming itself?
3. Learn more about the rich history of Atlantic City, “The Queen of Seaside Resorts,” at http://www.atlanticcityexperience.org
.A Conversation with Rachel Beanland
A Conversation with Rachel BeanlandQ: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever. How long have you been working on your novel? What was your process in writing it?
A: Thank you. Writing the book and seeing it published has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I’d always considered myself a writer, but when I turned thirty-five, I decided that I needed to stop saying I wanted to write a novel and actually
write a novel. I was working full-time, raising three kids, and I had no free time. I knew that the only way I was going to get a novel written was if I wrote it while the rest of my family was asleep, so I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and wrote for two-and-a-half hours a day, seven days a week, for two straight years!
For the most part, I wrote the book linearly. I have friends who write books in separate chunks and then move those chunks around until they’ve got something they’re happy with. I much prefer to get page one right and then move on to page two. I didn’t know how the book would end when I started writing, although I did always know that Fannie’s baby would be safely delivered into the world and that Esther would play a large role in the final scene. I needed her to reckon with both her loss and her decision to keep that loss from Fannie.Q: Florence Adler is based on the story of one of your ancestors, your great-great-aunt, Florence Lowenthal. What was it like to grow up with this as a central story in your family?
A: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Florence Lowenthal’s drowning. It was a story that was told frequently in my family, usually by my mother. While she would give the details of Florence’s death, her real focus was always on Florence’s mother, whom I renamed Esther, and how tough she must have been to visit one daughter in the hospital, day after day, and never let on that her other daughter had died.
Whenever my mother retold the story, the moral was obvious. If you loved someone—your spouse, your parents, your children—it was your prerogative and even your responsibility to shield them from information that might cause them pain. My siblings and I took the message to heart. Over the course of our lives, we’ve hidden health scares, mental health diagnoses, and even deaths from the people we love most.
As a child, I can remember pushing back on this assumption that Florence’s mother was right to keep her death a secret. I thought about my own brother and sisters and how I’d feel if anything happened to one of them. It felt important to me to be able to grieve such a significant loss in real time, and to make my own decisions about how I chose to mark a loss and mourn a death. Whenever I’d voice those feelings, my mother—and sometimes my grandmother—would come down firmly on the other side of my argument. I think the fact that we couldn’t come to consensus was what told me I had the makings of a compelling novel on my hands.Q: Did you ever consider writing the story as nonfiction? Was it difficult to fictionalize a story that was based on true events? A:
I never considered writing a nonfiction account of Florence’s drowning and its aftermath because I just didn’t think I had enough facts. What I had was a bare bones story, which had been passed down through the family like we’d been playing a giant game of telephone. With a little research, I was able to straighten out a few facts that had become skewed over the years and sketch in some more details, but it was never enough to comprise an entire work of nonfiction. Plus, my gut was that Florence’s story would be enhanced by looking at it through the prism of other people’s stories.
As for whether it was difficult to fictionalize Florence’s story, I thought it might be, but because these events happened nearly ninety years ago, I found I was able—pretty easily—to treat everyone as the fictional characters they quickly became. I think it helped that, aside from my grandmother, I had never met any of these people in real life. And even in the case of my grandmother, I’d certainly never met her as a little girl! It was more difficult for my mother and her cousins to read the manuscript because they had grown up spending summers in Atlantic City with their grandparents—my Fannie and Isaac. In particular, my mother had a difficult time with Isaac because she knew her grandfather to be an extremely loving man. When she read the manuscript for the first time, I had to keep reminding her that what she was reading was a work of fiction. It took her about two hundred pages to forgive me for Isaac, but when she finished the book, in tears, she called me up and declared it beautiful. She’s now the book’s biggest publicist, so I think we’re good!Q: Florence Adler Swims Forever is set in Atlantic City in the 1930s and is a vividly rendered portrait of this place during a time of great joy (post-Depression) and impending sadness (pre–World War II). What research did you do to bring this place and this time period to life?
A: While my grandparents grew up in Atlantic City and my mother spent significant time there as a child, Atlantic City existed for me only in my family’s stories. When I decided to write this novel, I knew I needed to thoroughly research both the place and the time period.
I started by doing a lot of reading—books such as Charles E. Funnell’s By the Beautiful Sea
and A. L. English’s History of Atlantic City, New Jersey
were helpful—but I quickly realized I was going to need more visuals if I wanted to make the city come to life.
What many people may not realize is that the Atlantic City of my grandmother’s childhood no longer exists. Gambling was legalized in 1976, and in the decades that followed the majority of the old hotels were razed to make room for the casinos we know today. Many of the landmarks alluded to in this novel are long gone, including the storefront my great-grandparents owned at the corner of Virginia and Atlantic Avenues. I could—and would—make a research trip to present day Atlantic City, but the work I did beforehand was critical to understanding the city the Adlers, not to mention my own family, called home.
In its heyday Atlantic City attracted millions of visitors each summer, which means that—thankfully—a lot of souvenirs and related ephemera have survived. Visitors bought stacks of postcards depicting the famous boardwalk and piers, as well as restaurants, hotels, and even shops, and they mailed them to friends and family across the world. Now those postcards turn up in library archives and on eBay with some regularity. A quick Google search for “Hygeia Baths” or “Chalfont Hotel” almost always delivered me good results.
To help visualize how my characters moved through the city, I found and printed an oversized map of historic Atlantic City, which I mounted on foam core. With the postcards as clues, I used pins to mark the location of hotels and restaurants, boardwalk concessions and beach tents. It was a laborious process but it helped me tremendously. If my characters set off walking somewhere, I knew exactly what they’d pass along the way.Q: In Florence Adler Swims Forever, the characters wrestle with grief and suffering (and these feelings are complicated by the fact that they must grieve in a very private, secretive way). Each character responds to Florence’s death differently
. Was it difficult for you to imagine how each character felt? Do you think the characters would have derived comfort from being able to share in collective grief (something the Jewish faith is known for)?
A: My father died of pancreatic cancer when he was fifty-eight. I reference the loss in this book’s acknowledgments but I think it’s worth mentioning again here. Had I not had that early experience with losing someone I dearly loved, I don’t know that I could have written this book, or at least done justice to the grief associated with Florence’s loss. What I learned as I navigated my relationship with my mother and siblings, and even my relationship with my husband and son after my father’s death, is that we all grieve differently and in our own way. I think rituals are hugely important, and when we don’t find them in our faith, we look for them in other places. One of the things rituals do is teach us how to let go.
Before I lost my father, I never knew what to say to someone who was grieving. Afterward, I realized I wanted to hear people say his name aloud, to listen to them recall their favorite stories about him, to know they too were invested in keeping his memory alive. Writing this novel, I ached for the Adlers because I knew that in keeping Florence’s death a secret, they were robbing themselves of a vital aspect of mourning. When we share our grief, we validate the fact that the person we have loved and lost made a lasting impression on our lives.Q: The book contains many details about life in an American Jewish community in the 1930s. Was it easy for you to represent both the cultural and religious aspects of this experience? What did you feel was important to convey to readers about the Jewish experience at this time?
A: I was raised in a culturally Jewish household but I wouldn’t say we were very religious. So, when it came to writing about the cultural and religious aspects of life in Jewish Atlantic City, I relied on a lot of research. One book that was extremely helpful to me was Leo B. Shoffer’s A Dream, A Journey, a Community: A Nostalgic Look at Jewish Businesses In and Around Atlantic City
. Another was a book in the Images of America series—Leonard F. Vernon and Allen Meyers’s Jewish South Jersey
. Joseph Brandes’s Immigrants to Freedom: Jewish Communities in Rural New Jersey Since 1882
helped me better understand Isaac’s upbringing in Alliance, and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made
is a critical text for anyone who wants to learn more about the larger Jewish immigrant experience in the United States.
My grandmother always called Atlantic City a “Jewish town” but it wasn’t until I started to immerse myself in the research that I realized the city did in fact have a higher percentage of Jewish residents than other cities of its size. This was due, in large part, to the fact that Atlantic City wasn’t developed until the 1850s, when the Camden & Atlantic Railroad laid the first railroad tracks to Absecon Island. The city’s boom coincided—quite precisely—with a spike in Jewish immigration to the United States. Jewish laborers, merchants, and professionals who had newly arrived in this country were looking for places where they might establish a foothold, and in Atlantic City everyone was hiring. It was exciting for Jewish immigrants to settle in a fledgling city with dreams as big as their own.Q: Isaac could have been easily characterized as a deadbeat husband and written off as someone who readers would be happy to see leave. However, you depict him with a lot of empathy. What do you think of his ambitions and the decisions he makes?
A: It was very important to me to write Isaac as a complex character who—like all of us—has both good and bad traits. I didn’t think readers would agree with his actions but I wanted them to appreciate or at least try to understand his motivations. We’re all products of the world in which we grow up, and Isaac was deeply shaped by his early experiences and even the experiences of his parents. Isaac gets more backstory than many of the other characters in the book, and it’s because I wanted readers to get some sense of where his ambition came from and how devastating it can be when that ambition is misdirected.
Isaac’s decision to take Joseph’s money and leave Atlantic City was in keeping with what I knew about his character, and it was also my way of offering Fannie a second chance. Women in the early twentieth century didn’t have many options when they found themselves in bad marriages, but I—like Joseph—couldn’t imagine leaving Fannie to live out her days alongside a man who could never be happy with her.Q: Your novel switches perspective between all of the major characters except the one at its center: Florence. Do you think Florence’s story is well-told by those around her, or are there pieces that only she can tell?
A: I settled on the novel’s rotating structure very early on in the writing process. Because I was dealing with family secrets, I knew I couldn’t write an omniscient narrator. Each secret had to come out in its own time. By rotating perspective and only allowing the reader access to the mind of one character at a time, I was able to sustain tension and reveal secrets when it felt appropriate to do so.
What took me longer to figure out was when and how to make Florence’s presence felt. I wanted readers to love her, so that they’d understand how greatly she was missed, and to achieve that end, I played around with the idea of giving her a prologue, and even inserting chapters that dealt specifically with her past. At that time, I was showing early chapters of the manuscript to a writing workshop, and I owe those first readers a huge debt. They convinced me that I didn’t need to tell any part of the story from Florence’s perspective but that if I interspersed other people’s memories of her throughout the book, readers would come to love her anyway. Of course, this does mean that we won’t ever know the full extent of Florence’s feelings for Anna, or what happened to her during the final moments of her life, but I’m okay with that.Q: What was it like to write from each character’s perspective? Were there characters who were easier to write than others?
A: I love rotating perspectives because, as a writer, I never have a chance to grow bored with any of my characters. Each character has to work so hard and so efficiently during their limited time on the page, and for me, that presents a fun challenge. Also, every time I come back around to someone I haven’t seen in a while, it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.
As far as who was easiest or most difficult to write, it’s hard to say. Each character presented his or her own rewards and challenges. Gussie was enjoyable to write because she’s the embodiment of my grandmother as a young girl. Also, my eldest daughter was about Gussie’s age when I started the project, so I was inspired by her. People say it’s hard to write child narrators in adult fiction—that, as readers, we want our narrators to be capable of processing advanced thoughts and emotions. But I do think there can be this poignancy and humor in writing a child as he or she navigates an adult world; Gussie understands a lot but not everything, and what she is and isn’t capable of translating is as much a reflection on the people around her as it is on her.
Fannie was a challenging character for me to write for a number of reasons. For one thing, she’s confined to a hospital room. We’re taught to write characters in action and, by definition, Fannie can’t move, or at least not much! She’s also the only character in the novel who doesn’t know about Florence’s death; the fact that she’s being kept in the dark strips her of some of her agency. I wanted Fannie’s chapters to be as robust as those of the other six characters, but to accomplish that I had to be creative. She needed visitors, obviously, but waiting around for people to appear in her hospital room couldn’t be her whole life. I wanted her to form real connections with the doctors and nurses who cared for her, and I also knew she needed her own concerns about both the baby she was carrying and the baby who had died the previous year. When I discovered that the famous Dionne quintuplets had been born during the same time period as Fannie’s confinement, I felt that the universe had handed me a rare gift. Of course she’d be obsessed with them!Q: The book ends without us knowing how Fannie responds to Florence’s death and Isaac’s departure. How did you know when to end the story? And do you know what happens beyond the pages, or is that for us to decide?
A: I get this question a lot. But the funny thing is, it never occurred to me to write that scene in the hospital—the one where Joseph and Esther tell Fannie that Florence is dead and Isaac is gone. Writers are taught that every scene needs to present new information, which will ultimately move the story forward. That scene, in which Fannie finally learns the truth, already exists in all of our heads. And it’s devastating, right? I could have written a scene that captured some of that devastation, but the reality is that readers wouldn’t have walked away with any new information.
I also think there’s something about not sharing the scene that is in keeping with the ethos of the time. After the real Florence died and the family got through that terrible summer, my great-great-grandmother never uttered her daughter’s name again. She even destroyed her photographs, which I find both fascinating and heartbreaking. In that post–World War I era, people dealt with tragedy differently. They didn’t talk so much. Women like my great-great-grandmother put on a good face and moved forward as best they could.Q: What do you hope continues to resonate with readers long after they’ve placed Florence Adler Swims Forever back on the shelf?
With Florence’s story, there was this underlying assumption, within the family, that my great-grandmother wasn’t strong enough to bear the simultaneous burdens of a dangerous pregnancy and her sister’s death. That to protect her, essentially from herself, the family had no choice but to keep this terrible secret.
I still wonder whether, if I had been Esther, I would have told Fannie that Florence had died. I thought that, by the time I finished this novel, I’d have answered that question—if nothing else. But I still don’t know what I’d do, in her shoes. What I do know is that women are frequently underestimated, and my experiences as a daughter, sister, wife, and mother contradict the narrative that we can’t hold great sorrow and great joy in our hands at the same time. In fact, it’s often the only thing we can do.Q: Are you working on anything now? And, if so, can you tell us about it?
I’ve got a few projects I’m juggling, so we’ll see what comes of them. I don’t know if it’s because my parents came from such different worlds or because I grew up as a military kid, moving someplace new every couple of years, but I find I usually think about all prospective novels first in terms of setting. Atlantic City was such a rich setting for this novel, it’s as if it became another character in the story. I’d love my next project to have that same connection to place. Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Every writer is different but, for me, my breakthrough came about a decade ago when I started making myself write every day. I’d heard the old Flannery O’Connor quote, “Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there,” and I figured I couldn’t control much but I could control the sitting.
I created a ritual out of my writing. I sat in the same spot each morning, wore the same ratty sweatshirt, and drank from the same coffee cup. Soon, my daily writing practice was a habit I couldn’t break. Every page I produced wasn’t perfect but it did bring me much closer to the book you hold in your hands.Q: Have you ever been a part of a book club, and if so, what made it special? How did you decide what to read together? What makes for a good book club pick?
A: Before I went back to graduate school, I was a member of not one but two book clubs! I think they’re a wonderful way to discover new writers and make new friends. Even when a book club is made up of your oldest and dearest friends, discussing a challenging book helps us better understand each other’s differences. As a writer, I think it’s especially worthwhile to belong to book clubs. I can get really in the weeds, thinking about a story on the sentence level. It’s important to remember that everyone doesn’t read literature the same way, and that people are reading in the bath or the carpool line or on an exercise bike, and that what they’re looking for in a good book is both beautiful writing and a compelling story that keeps them turning pages.
One of the book clubs I belonged to adopted a really great selection process. The host chose three books she was interested in reading, and the rest of the group voted on their favorite. (They did all their voting in a shared Google document.) The system worked well because, when it was your turn to host, you were guaranteed a book you were excited about, but when you weren’t hosting, you still felt invested in the selection.
I read a lot of literary fiction, and feel like book clubs work best when the novels under discussion have at least a few divisive characters and plenty of big unanswerable what-would-you-do questions. I love a good debate and there’s nothing better than that moment at book club when the room erupts in conversation, everyone so excited about the book that they’re talking over one another. I hope Florence Adler Swims Forever
is that book for many of you.