This reading group guide for The Night Swimmer includes 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.
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Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of The Night Swimmer
, Elly says that when she looks back at her time in Ireland she is ashamed. Why does Elly believe she is to blame for what happened? Do you think the blame should rest entirely on her? How do feelings of guilt and shame motivate the characters in The Night Swimmer
2. Elly reflects on the early days of her marriage: “By the time we were married I would begin to miss Fred almost the instant he would leave my sight. . . . Fred had such passion for me, for everything. I fed on it and became addicted to it” (pp. 98–99). Discuss the nature of Fred and Elly’s relationship. Do you think it is healthy? Why do you think their relationship is so intense? What ultimately draws them to each other?
3. What were your initial reactions to Fred? Do you find him sympathetic? Likable? When describing him in graduate school, Elly portrays him as being quarrelsome and grandiose. Can you understand why Elly fell in love with him? Why or why not? Discuss the change in his personality after they moved to Ireland. Was he losing his mind? Or was there something else influencing his behavior?
4. During a swim, Elly describes a sudden longing for Fred: “for the feel of his body on mine, his arms around me, and as I ascended through the water my loneliness felt like a place of habitation, a comfortable room that I could enter and stay. It was as if I was inside my own loneliness” (pp. 119–20). Discuss this passage. Can there be true comfort in loneliness? How does loneliness define the characters in The Night Swimmer
? Consider Fred, O’Boyle, Sebastian, and Dinny in your response.
5. Elly says that her endless swimming is a distraction from the state of her marriage: “I would drag myself out of the water and shudder with exhaustion, and in those moments I forgot that my marriage was coming apart, the layers peeling away like pieces of a broken satellite reentering the earth’s atmosphere” (p. 167). What were the first indications that their marriage was falling apart?
6. Did you suspect Miranda’s true identity? Did you find her story and actions plausible? Why or why not?
7. Discuss the feud between Highgate and the Corrigans. What do you think is at the core of this long-standing dispute? Is it purely economic, as Patrick thinks? Or are there other deeper, more complex reasons?
8. Who is the young girl that Elly sees climbing the lighthouse at Fastnet? How does this passage introduce a supernatural element to The Night Swimmer
? Did this plot point affect your interpretation of other events in the novel? Why or why not?
9. Other than wanting a grandchild, what were Ham’s motivations for drawing up the contract he presents to Fred and Elly?
10. The novel’s epigraphs are quotes from The Journals of John Cheever
, and Elly frequently references the author throughout the course of the narrative. Are you familiar with any of John Cheever’s work? What do you think draws Elly to his writing? Consider Elly’s explanation in the following passage: “Cheever’s value to me is not merely as a storyteller but also as a model of the difficulties of navigating morality in an immoral world” (p. 137). Discuss the significance of this passage in regards to the overall tone of The Night Swimmer
and to Elly as a character.
11. What does Sebastian represent to Elly? What does she get from him and their relationship that she does not get from her marriage with Fred?
12. Parent-child relationships play a subtle yet prevalent role in the novel. Consider the following advice Elly’s mother gives to Elly about motherhood: “Some women are mothers, and some women have children. I was no mother. I was just a woman who had children. . . . [Y]ou will likely have to confront this yourself at some point” (pp. 148–49). Do you agree with this sentiment? How do Elly’s own views on motherhood and having a child change over the course of the novel?
13. Discuss the passage in which O’Boyle tells Elly the story of his mother. What is the significance of the writing found on the wall near her body? How does this information impact Elly and Highgate’s connections to the island? How does this passage foreshadow future events in the novel?
14. In what ways does O’Boyle betray Elly’s trust? Were you surpised by his actions? Why do you think he befriends her despite his connection to the Corrigans? What is his connection with Ariel?
15. Although it’s not explicitly described in detail, what can you surmise about what happened to Beatrice when she and Elly were in high school? Although we don’t learn much about Elly’s reaction to this incident, how do you think it affected her? Discuss the significance of the passage about Elly’s performance at swim practice the day after Beatrice is followed by the three boys.
16. “This is the only story I will ever tell” (p. 272). Discuss your reactions to the conclusion of The Night Swimmer
. Do you have any unanswered questions? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Matt Bondurant kept a blog about the research he did for The Night Swimmer
and about his own experiences in the competitive world of open-water swimming. Visit mattbondurant.blogspot.com to read his posts about writing the novel and to watch video of him competing in open-water swim races. Do his descriptions of swimming remind you of any passages from The Night Swimmer
2. To view photos and to learn more about the town of Baltimore in West Cork, home to the fictional Nightjar Pub, visit www.baltimore.ie. How do the pictures compare to the descriptions you read in The Night Swimmer
? Discuss your reactions with your book club members.
3. If The Night Swimmer
piqued your interest in open-water swimming, consider reading Lynne Cox’s memoir, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
. Cox is referenced throughout The Night Swimmer
and her story is truly fascinating. Like Elly, she thrives in frigid water and has completed swims around the globe that no one else has come close to accomplishing.
4. The Murphy’s-sponsored contest that Fred wins is actually based on a real contest held several years ago by Guinness. Consider serving a pint of Ireland’s favorite beer at your book club meeting. For a listing of Guinness food pairings and recipe ideas, visit www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/Taste_Of_Guinness.aspx.