Guest Review: Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

October 13, 2012

Leanne Shapton grew up under the definitive identity of “competitive swimmer”. She spent the larger part of her life on the humid decks of muggy swimming pools, in and out of freezing waters, and constantly comparing herself and her times to the swimmers around her. Growing up as a competitive swimmer myself, the images and scenes that Shapton portrays in her novel Swimming Studies is all but too familiar. While this novel really grabbed my attention because of its familiarity for me and my own life events, there was something universally appealing about the style, voice, and subject at hand. Even without the knowledge of binge eating carb dinners before competition or staying in foreign hotel rooms with your teammates and competitors, Shapton strikes on the universal notes of longing to belong, searching for an identity, and grief and loss.

Book Review Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

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This novel follows the life of a woman and girl utterly obsessed with the solitude of swimming and the race, but also completely foreign to it. Shapton explores her experience as a swimmer in grade school, as a college swimmer, vying for an Olympic spot in her later years, and competing as an adult removed from the true competition of the youngsters. She expresses a true love for the sport and practice of swimming, but also communicates her unending feeling of not truly belonging. Shapton is fast, but is never allowed to really be one with her fellow swimmers. With her sparse and almost Hemmingway-esque prose (yes, I said it), Shapton communicates her self-inflicted outsider position brilliantly. The reader can sense the loneliness and solitude Shapton feels with swimming just from the way she describes her experiences on a team, during practices, and at competitions—but we can also feel her desperate love and need for the sport.

There are many things captivating about this novel, but Shapton’s ability to give just the right details about swimming and the sport is what astounded me. She describes the smallest details like the chlorinated and moldy smell of the college pool deck and the subtle bored expression that falls over your college coach’s face 20 minutes into a practice with such clarity. These details are impeccably spot on for any of us who have shared them and just graphic enough for a non-swimmer to really latch onto them. In many ways, Shapton’s depiction of the sport is reminiscent of swimming itself. She trails into metaphors and anecdotes like a swimmer entering a pool, starting with the burst of energy you feel as your body first adjusts to the cold and then just tumbling in and out of the stroke never really knowing when the swim will stop. Her metaphors and anecdotes are unexpected, but never out of place. She tumbles through them, but always finishing them with purpose—like a race.

The underlying exploration in this novel is the search for self. Shapton ‘s identity is so wrapped up in being a competitive swimmer that when she becomes older and loses that distinction, she also loses her sense of self. Spending decades in and out of the water, calling yourself a swimmer, spending the larger part of each and every day training alone in a pool—these things can begin to define you. But, as all athletes know, there comes a day you can no longer call yourself an athlete. This realization can truly rip some individuals apart. Shapton’s novel explores identity outside of the swimming and competition. Her experience as a swimmer and her obsession with the sport impacts every facet of her life, including her adulthood, selfhood, and marriage. Finding oneself outside of the thing that they love and the thing they know most is truly a lesson in loss, grief, and, at last, recovery.

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More Books by Leanne Shapton

This guest post is contributed by Nadia Jones, a freelance education blogger for Nadia frequently shares her expertise on distance education and accredited online colleges. She is passionate about education and encourages your feedback at

*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account

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