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The Swimming Pool
By Holly LeCraw
Doubleday, 320 pages, $30
A summary of the plot of The Swimming Pool, the debut novel from Boston-based short-story writer Holly LeCraw, makes it sound like a typical romantic potboiler -- A secret Cape Cod affair! An unsolved murder! A torrid romance between a woman and a man young enough to be her son! -- from the pen of Danielle Steel or Judith Krantz.
In the talented hands of LeCraw, however, the story becomes an insightful, compelling examination of love and betrayal that nonetheless has the page-turning qualities of the best beach reads.
Jed McClatchy is staying with his sister Callie at the family's summer home in Cape Cod, helping her look after her newborn baby and toddler while her husband works in the city.
He comes across a bathing suit, carefully preserved wrapped in tissue paper in a box, that strikes a chord of memory in him -- it belongs to a former neighbour of theirs, Marcella Atkinson, on whom he had a boyhood crush and whose daughter, Toni, is acting as a nanny for his sister's kids.
Following some ill-defined urge, he drives to her house to confront her about it, setting in motion an affair that consumes them both and brings to light secrets that will have a devastating ripple effect.
What Jed doesn't know is that Marcella and his father, Cecil, had a long affair of their own. It ended with the death of Cecil's wife, Betsy, who was murdered in what appeared to be a break-in.
However, Cecil's alibi was always shaky, as the motel bed he alleged to have been in that night was never slept in, according to the maid. Too much a gentleman to besmirch Marcella's name -- or too much a coward to admit to the affair -- he kept the fact that he'd been with her during the murder a secret.
He died shortly afterward in a car accident, and the suspicion that he'd killed his wife, kept alive by the media, has always plagued his children.
As the web of secrets that ties the Atkinsons and the McClatcheys begins to unravel, LeCraw reveals not only the lasting damage done by the affair but the lengths people will go to for love, not just romantic but familial.
LeCraw is an elegant writer who uses the tricks of the short-story author to good effect; her language is compact, not flowery, but no less descriptive for that.
Her description of both affairs is sensuous, never tawdry. Her depiction of what it's like to be a parent is powerful, whether she's looking at the pained distance that Marcella is desperate to bridge between herself and Toni, who's chosen to live with her father, or the alternating numbness and horror Callie feels as she pretends to love her baby girl despite the crippling post-natal depression she's trying to hide from her family.
Though the mystery surrounding Betsy's murder is ostensibly the plot's focus -- and LeCraw deals with it in a way that's the novel's only real dip into melodrama -- the book's real strengths are on the sidelines. (A chapter where Callie considers a row of knives in an Army Surplus store and can't prevent her mind from flashing to her baby, dead at her hands, is harrowing.)
The Swimming Pool is a perfect choice for those who want a certain degree of pulpy intrigue cleverly concealed by the merits of a literary novel.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.