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The Swimmers

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THE SWIMMERS by award-winning author Julie Otsuka (When the Emperor was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic) is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time. The writing is exquisite and it is difficult to pick out favorite quotes. The first part of the book is written as though the swimmers were collectively sharing the small moments of their time at the pool: "one of the best things about the pool is the brief respite it offers us from the noisy world above ...and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim." There are lists and lists and lists describing rules, the participants, and the pool itself until one day a crack appears, then disappears, but ultimately leads to change. Alice, who is developing dementia, feels the loss: "Up there, she says, I'm just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I'm myself." Without the routine of swimming, her condition worsens and the narration and focus of the book shifts to Alice's estranged daughter and their relationship. THE SWIMMERS received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus ("The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving."), Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It will be on our shelves soon.
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The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka is one of my favorite authors. Her Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Devine are two of the books I cherish and reread. (Read them both of you haven’t yet.) Her unique style always arrests the reader. In her newest novel, The Swimmers, as in her previous efforts, she begins in the first-person-plural with lists that focus the reader’s attention. In this case, the lists come from a Greek chorus of swimmers at an underground community pool.

“Up above there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up (Massive “Heat Dome” Permanently Stalled over Entire West Coast), but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-­one degrees. The humidity is sixty-­five percent. The visibility is clear. The lanes are orderly and calm.” 

Later, the novel switches to second person and we learn that Alice, one of the regulars, is in the early stages of dementia, yet she still swims and one of the pool’s unwritten rules is “Be nice to Alice.”

“You wake up one day and you can’t even remember your name (It’s Alice). But until that day comes you keep your eyes focused on that painted black line on the bottom of your lane and you do what you must: You swim on.” 

Alice and her fellow swimmers, people of all walks of life, swim on every single day, doggedly devoted to their daily laps. Then a mysterious crack appears in the pool and the swimmers’ fears grow as newer cracks follow. Not knowing how or why the cracks are there, the swimmers’ anxiety rises. Just as the progression and cause of Alice’s forgetfulness are frightening in their unpredictability, so are the mirroring fissures in the pool. 

Alice’s disease progresses and she moves to Belavista, a for-profit memory care facility. There the focus shifts to her memories including reflections on her internment as a Japanese-American during World War II and to her daughter’s lamentations and regrets over not being present for her parents. As in all her novels, Otsuka pierces the reader’s heart with short, staccato-like sentences: “Later, your mother says, ‘Didn’t everything used to have a name?’”

Summing it Up: The Swimmers is a heartbreaking and tender novel of loss and fear with a touch of biting satire. It’s also a master class in writing that shows how the right words used with precision go straight to the reader’s soul. The Swimmers embeds the reader inside the deteriorating mind of an aging woman and forces the reader to see the realities of her journey and the toll it takes on others. It’s written with dignity and restraint, but it’s still a difficult emotional read. Select it for your book club so you’ll have companions for the journey.

Like Otsuka’s other magnificent novels, this one isn’t long. At 176 pages, there isn’t a single unnecessary word to be found.

Rating: 5 Stars

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Tapas, Book Club

Publication Date: March 7, 2022

Author Website:

Read an Excerpt: 

Interview with the Author: If you do nothing else, read or listen to this interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross:

What Others are Saying: 

Kirkus Reviews:

Library Journal:

L.A. Times:

New York Times:

Publishers Weekly:

Labels: Book Club, Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Tapas
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I loved this little book so, so much. The descriptions of the pool and the swimmers were just so vivid, I could almost smell the chlorinated air. And then the story took an unexpected turn, and I was just so moved by the writing.
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The best book I have read so far in 2022. A masterclass in structure and economy of language - the first half is a philosophical examination of our present moment, and the second half broke my heart and left me in awe through its examination of Alice, an older woman suffering from dementia. I will be recommending this to everyone!
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THE SWIMMERS is such a beautiful, incredible book.

Julie Otsuka begins in the first person plural, describing a group of avid swimmers at the local pool. But suddenly a crack emerges at the bottom of the pool, resulting in concern and an investigation. I loved how she played with the collective vs. individual voices, giving the reader opinions from various experts and swimmers. One of these swimmers is Alice, who's forgotten her own name -- such is life with dementia.

In the second half of the book, we leave the pool behind to focus on Alice and her daughter. Otsuka uses the second person to put the reader in the daughter's head, leaving the reader grappling with both the experience of (terminal) dementia and a daughter's guilt. I felt so much of this book deeply -- from the (funny!) neuroticism over the crack in the pool to the heartbreak of mortality. 

THE SWIMMERS also had me wanting to highlight every other paragraph, so taken was I by the writing. Otsuka clearly is a master of her craft. This is a book I feel lucky to have read and think many others will love too.
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This was a beautifully written novel that meditates on grief and loss, particularly in the case when the person you are grieving is still alive. It was written unconventionally, focused for the first third on the swimmers in a local pool and once the pool closes down, focuses on the daughter of one of the swimmers. As someone who had experience with a family member with dementia, this was a very insightful and thoughtful read. My only complaint is that the first third of the book felt pretty unconnected from the later 2/3rds, and I wish there had been a better way to connect the two.
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A beautiful and heartbreaking exploration of a loved one's descent into dementia.
The first part of Julie Otsuka's third novel, The Swimmers, seems on the surface to be a simple tale about several users of an underground public pool. This varied group make up a loose club of regulars who know each other superficially — by swimming style or lane choice, occupation, or by their reason for swimming in the first place. It quickly becomes clear that the pool is important to each of them — a sanctuary from the mental and physical strains they endure daily, an opportunity for an hour of peace. The anonymous narrator, who counts herself as one of the swimmers, rarely names her companions or singles any of them out, apart from Alice, "a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia," the only character who gets repeated mentions throughout this section. When the pool develops a crack, eventually resulting in its closure, everyone is impacted differently, and each must learn to cope in their own way.

About a third of the way through, the novel changes direction to focus on an unnamed woman in a memory care facility and her daughter, who is witnessing her mother's decline. Readers are left to assume the woman is Alice, and the daughter seems to be a stand-in for Otsuka herself, as aspects of her life align with the author's. The narration switches from the "we" of the first section to "you," and it's unclear if the narrator is addressing the daughter, or if the daughter is talking to herself:

Whenever you stop by to see her she remembers to give you a big hug, and you are always surprised at her strength. She remembers to give you a kiss every time you leave…She remembers to ask you if you would like her to iron your blouse for you before you go out on a date…She does not remember eating lunch with you twenty minutes ago and suggests that you go out to Marie Callender's for sandwiches and pie. She does not remember that she herself once used to make the most beautiful pies with perfectly fluted crusts. She does not remember how to iron your blouse for you or when she began to forget.

Later, a dispassionate narrator tells their audience about what they can expect at Belavista, a long-term, for-profit memory residence ("You are here today because you have failed the test. Maybe you were unable to draw all the numbers on the clock face, or spell 'world' backward, or remember even one of the five unrelated words that were just recited to you, mere minutes ago, by one of our professionally trained testers") before returning to the younger woman's point of view as her mother's dementia progresses.

The Swimmers isn't a conventional novel, and at first I found the author's narrative style rather off-putting. Paragraph after paragraph reads like a catalog, an inventory of the swimmers and their habits, without much exposition or depth. I was well into the book and had spent many pages wondering what the first part of it had to do with the second before realizing that it's allegorical, with the crack in the pool representing dementia. The author maintains this style throughout the novel, but hidden within seemingly random sentences is an amazing amount of detail about the person Alice was before dementia took her memory. The narrative forms a sort of collage of the woman's life, fragmented but nonetheless making a complete picture. While it lacks a traditional plot structure, we come to know Alice well.

Much of the text, too, relays the unnamed daughter's regrets as she witnesses her mother's decline ("You never once invited your mother to come visit you in all the years that you were away. You never wrote to her. You never called to wish her a happy birthday. You never took her to Paris or Venice or Rome, all the places she had dreamed of one day seeing…"). Her heartbreak over her failings and over the progression of her mother's condition isn't explicitly stated, but it's palpable regardless. Equally affecting (and actually quite frightening) is the Belavista section, as one realizes just how much autonomy a person relinquishes upon entering such a facility.

I love books that pack an emotional punch, but that do so subtly, without hitting the reader over the head with the obvious; The Swimmers is just such a novel. It's poignant without becoming cloying, and it's a book that will likely haunt its readers long after they turn the last page. I highly recommend it, particularly for those who are dealing with memory loss (their own, or that of a loved one). It would also make a wonderful book for group discussion.
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"The Swimmers," by Julie Otsuka, initially felt like two separate books in one. The first half of the novel is narrated in the first person plural by a Greek chorus of swimmers who find solace and community in an underground pool. Through a series of lists, Otsuka fleshes out not the individual and mostly unnamed swimmers, but the diversity of their community. I was weirdly mesmerized by this style--even more so when Otsuka adds a complicating plot point: a mysterious crack appears in the pool. Now the lists are of the varied speculations about the cause of the crack and what to do about it, tension building as more and more people exit the pool until there is one last swimmer, a woman named Alice who is suffering from dementia.  

Then "The Swimmers" makes a precipitous shift to focus on Alice, with narration in the second person by her daughter. The lists are now of the things that Alice can and can't remember and, much as the lists in the first part of the book built a picture of the pool community, these lists illuminate Alice's past life and current struggles.. The final section unites the "we" and the "you" narrative styles (and the book as a whole) with lists explaining life at Belavista, the memory residence that Alice has been admitted to; the net effect of all these clinical lists builds to a heartbreaking climax.

"The Swimmers" is certainly an unconventional book, with an unique structure that in Otsuka's skilled hands yields so many unexpected moments of grace. It's a book that I'm still thinking about weeks after finishing, and one that I'm more and more impressed with.

Thank you to NetGalley and Alfred A. Knopf for providing me an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review. Very happy to have read this introduction to Julie Otsuka's work.
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Having read When the Emperor was Divine, I fully expected to enjoy this read. Sadly, I didn’t not. It doesn’t feel warm and narrative like Emperor at all, and even the parts that could be touching and powerful fall into an overdone, repetitive structure that just feels like a gimmick after a while. It stone walled my reading because I found myself doing anything and everything I stress is sitting down and picking it up.  Very, very disappointed.
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This is an incredible, deeply moving short novel. I couldn't put it down once I started reading it. I will definitely seek out other works by this author.
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I requested this book based on my recall of The Buddha in the Attic, which I remember loving, and I don't know if it's because this book is such a different animal or my taste has changed, but this one left me disappointed.

While the first third or so of the book is full of generalities about a group of swimmers, written in a collective first person (i.e. some of us are slow swimmers...), the remainder of the book focuses on dementia.  Neither section has a lot of plot, and while I don't typically need much plot when a book is beautifully written, this book needed something.  The focus on a group and then on a person who is slowly "disappearing" left the book without the anchor of a well flushed out character, so while the writing was lovely at times, there was not enough plot or deep characterization for me (though I am clearly in the minority on this one).  It is, however, a quick read, and while not light subject matter, it isn't an intellectually difficult read.

Two and a half stars.
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The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a literary fiction novel chronicling the lives and daily routines of a group of swimmers who attend lap swim at a local underground pool. Each lap swimmer has their own idiosyncrasies at thee pool, but soon these patterns are changed when a crack is discovered in the pool. What was once a safe haven for the swimmers becomes a memory as the pool closes and now each swimmer must create a life in the after times without their pool. However, one of the most affected swimmers is Alice, a woman developing dementia who has spent countless years in this pool. How will these changes affect Alice and the swimmers in her life? 

I have heard nothing but positive buzz from some of my favorite book reviewers and was so glad to get my hands on this book. And this book does not disappoint!

This is my first novel by Julie Otsuka, and it certainly won't be my last. The writing style is compelling with an almost stream-of-consciousness quality to it. Each sentence or thought is connected to the next one that carries you away in this novel. This book was almost two-parts with the first half focused on the swimmers and their response to the crack and the second half focused on Alice and her daughter as she fades away into her dementia. 

The writing was clever describing all the characters who swim at the pool. As someone who was a lifeguard in college, I could fully picture each of those characters I have seen when lifeguarding. The book did a wonderful job highlighting the quiet community these swimmers created and the last day of swim at the pool beautifully depicted this with the quiet, anti-climatic emptiness the swimmers felt. 

As the book moves into Alice's life, it begins with a witty commentary on entering memory care and the rigid rules surrounding the lives of its inhabitant. However, this slowly grows darker and more emotional as you learn the impact dementia has on the individual and their family. 

It is amazing the writing was able to accomplish all this in such a short novel. Overall, this a beautifully wrought novel and I highly recommend this to all readers!

Many thanks to the publisher Knopf Doubleday and Netgalley for the ARC in return for an honest review.
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This is my first Julie Otsuka book, and I absolutely devoured it. The book begins with a narrator from Alice's swim group. The narrator describes the various swimmers and their different personalities. I love the distinction made between the swimmers and those who lived above ground, on land. You definitely understand these swimmers' love of swimming and water. No matter who they are, they became a community, a family. I do like that examples of Alice's dementia slowly show throughout the book.

I loved the quick-paced, poetic narration throughout the entire book. Though there was a lot of build-up to the focused narration regarding Alice and her daughter's relationship, I quite enjoyed that. 

When the pool where Alice swims closes, and dementia takes over Alice's life, it's an interesting narrative between Alice and her daughter. The switched narratives between mother and daughter are full of joy, heartbreak, longing, and love. 

Both mother and daughter have their own stories that deserve attention and care. 

What a fantastic story.

Thank you, Net Galley and Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House, for approving this ARC. Also, thank you Julie Otsuka for writing this story.
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Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers is sure to be one of the most creative and emotional new books I will read this year.  Many readers of  When the Emperor Was Divine or The Buddha in the Attic will understand this author’s ability to create vivid images in her reader’s mind and her unusual uses of point of view. 

Otsuka opens The Swimmers with the second person plural point of view.  As the title indicates, at least part of the book is about swimmers, not a swimmer, and swimmers (like all people) come in a all shapes, sizes, and ages, with different levels of ability, different speeds, different motivations, and different thought processes.  These swimmers also swim their laps in a different pool than most—an underground pool in which a crack appears, disappears, and reappears.  In paragraphs comprised of colorful and artfully astounding lists, Otsuka reveals who these swimmers are, what challenges they face above ground, why they swim, how they swim, the many ways they react to the crack’s appearances and changes, the varying opinions of experts, and the differing ways the swimmers cope when worsening conditions force closure. 

The remainder of the book focuses on one of the swimmers—Alice, an aging Asian American woman, whose mental decline following the pool closure lands her in a memory care facility—and on Alice's family.  The lists continue now and then, itemizing the things Alice remembers and does not remember, the rules for living in the facility, and the types of people living there.  As Alice declines, the focus shifts more to her daughter, a novelist. The point of view also shifts to suit Otsuka’s immediate focus.

Julie Otsuka deftly paints an emotional portrait of life, of people suddenly confronted by the unknown, of declining mental capacity and its impact on those who love a person slowly disappearing from the world.  You may feel that much seems familiar in this heart-rending novel even if you have not experienced a family member’s dementia. It is fiction, an at least semi-autobiographical account, and a striking allegory.

My thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for an advance reader copy of one of the rare books that will stay with me for years to come.
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Never having read anything by Julie Otsuka before, I will definitely be reading her earlier books.  The Swimmers are a group of people belonging to a basement swimming club.  Everyone has their reasons for swimming-relaxing, exercise, meditation.  Alice, one of the swimmers, is losing her memory, as most everyone notices but accepts.  Alice never forgets how to swim.  The pool is closed for renovation (perhaps ever opening again) as Alice sinks further into dementia, She is sent to a memory care facility.  We get a window into her "before" life.  An amazing and beautifully written novel.
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This third novel from highly-regarded, multiple award-winning Otsuka is a heartbreaker.

Short in length and simply phrased, it is divided into two parts, the first devoted to a below-ground swimming  pool in a Californian city; the second to the life – and death – of Alice, one of the swimmers.

Written in the first person plural and then the vocative, the book offers switches of intimacy and mood. At the pool, an element of social satire is evident and embraced. But Alice’s story is inescapably tragic, a mother/daughter narrative of intimacy and and regret.

Both halves are full of lists, accumulations of detail which Otsuka uses to convey brilliant flashes of identity and contemporary notes. In the dreamy other world – choose your symbol – of the pool, for example, there are the swimmers, their abilities and needs, the pool’s rules, the debris hoovered up from its floor, and many more catalogues: ‘Up above there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blistering hot days that never seem to let up.’

And then there are the cracks. At first just a single, concerning blemish on the pool floor, soon this flaw will develop into an infestation that will challenge the pool community and bring about its closure, setting up the template for the novel’s second part.

Swimming laps had allowed Alice some brief respite from her advancing dementia. Its loss strips her of that comfort, leaving her unprotected from uninterrupted decline and ultimately the irrevocable switch from her own home to an institution. The ‘you’ addressed in this section is Alice’s daughter, a writer, childless, middle-aged and distant, invoking irresistibly the notion that the novel is autobiographical. For Alice is of Japanese origin, who, as a child, was deported with her family to one of the notorious American internment camps during World War II.

Both Alice’s and her daughter’s characters are evoked in lyrical sentences, all the more plangent as, for Alice, words and meaning drift away from her: “She does not remember what she ate for dinner last night, or when she last took her medicine. She does not remember to drink enough water. She does not remember to comb her hair.” Shortly, she will lose her freedom too, as she is moved to Belavista, a ‘long-term, for-profit memory residence’ for the ‘next and final’ phase of her journey.

Otsuka’s intention and Alice’s destination are never hidden, the novel’s prose is never excessive, yet this narrative delivers immense power, in both its specificity and wider relevance. As the pool was a place of community and togetherness, so the Belavista is a site of separate trajectories, each patient traversing a path of lesser connection and loss, into isolation and silence.

Other novels of Alzheimer’s and associated dementias (Alice has Pick’s disease, relatively rare) exist, some featuring central characters named Alice* – but Otsuka’s immaculate understatement renders afresh the ghastly transitions of the experience, as well as the wider repercussions. Alice may fade but her after-image will not be so easily expunged.

*Still Alice by Lisa Genova
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This book was a beautiful, thoughtful exploration of aging, memory loss, tragedy inside a community that anyone outside just wouldn't understand and of course, swimming. The book was divided into four chapters, with a large portion of the book focused on a group of people who swim at a particular pool -- and who eventually see a crack in their pool. The crack causes all sorts of dramatic introspection and the author does an incredible job weaving a variety of experiences together. The novel was such an in-depth exploration of swimming and those who regularly swim laps, with all their different personalities, reasons for swimming, and lives above the ground. The second half of the book focuses on dementia and is incredible powerful. A beautiful novel indeed!

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf for this gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you so much to Net Galley, the publisher, and the author for providing this beautiful book for my review. This book is just so beautiful. This will stay with me for a long time to come. It’s a beautiful story of mother/daughter relationships, coping with growing older, and coping with parents aging as well. I suggest reading this book without knowing too much about it beforehand. I did that and enjoyed the ride immensely. I highly recommend this book for anyone caring for aging parents. Thank you again to Net Galley, the publisher, and author. This is such a powerful work of literature.
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The first (fairly long) chapter of this book works as a brilliant stand-alone short story that should be read by anyone who has ever swam laps. Otsuka absolutely nails every aspect of swimming laps and the different types of people who swim laps. The book eventually focuses on one of the swimmers, a Japanese-American woman with dementia. The first two chapters actually left me confused as to where the book was leading. The woman's story is interesting (and sad.) This is a short book so even if you only end up getting it to read the first chapter, you might as well read the whole thing.
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This is a genuine heartbreaker of a short novel, especially for one whose storytelling approach is so elliptical and enumerative. Otsuka's prose style is impeccably precise and minimalistic, accumulating into five chapters which are unsifted piles of Post-It Notes with different narrative frames whose foci draw ever tighter.

The novel begins as a Greek chorus in the 1st-person plural, voicing the collective observations of the regular lap swimmers at an underground Californian university pool: a multicultural mosaic people from all walks of life. When the authorities permanently close the pool after a series of scientifically inexplicable cracks emerge in its bottom, this community suddenly evaporates, leaving one of the dozens of swimmers, an elderly Japanese-American woman named Emily, bereft.

It isn't until about 2/5 of the way into the novel that Otsuka shifts from multi-perspectival pointillism to an extreme closeup, and that we realize that Alice has been the novel's central figure all along. (Have you seen the video of a gorilla playing basketball, designed to illustrate the psychological phenomenon of selective attention? That's the closest analogy to this astonishing shift in perspective that Otsuka masterfully pulls off here.)

Without a meaningful way to punctuate and structure her time, Alice's inner life subsides into dementia, as observed by her daughter, a middle-aged novelist who might or might not be an autofictional stand-in for Otsuka. As Alice's world shrinks ever further, and she moves out of her house into a memory-care nursing home, the novelist sifts through what she knows (and will never know) about her mother's life, and all the life stories her mother will no longer remember: her childhood in an internment camp, her long and contented marriage, the death of her first child as an infant, the loss of the great love of her life, her experiences as an Asian-American mother in the Bay Area suburbs.

This was an extremely unsentimental account of a beloved parent's decline, written by her adult child with whom she had a complicated but loving relationship, and all the more powerful for it.

Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
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