“Swimming for Sunlight” by Allie Larkin has it all — but mostly it has a main character who has experienced it all, and in her case that’s not a good thing. Katie has experienced much loss. Her father died when she was young. Even worse was how it happened; he died when he was swimming with her to the dock by their lake home, and Katie tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him. After her father was gone, her mother relinquished all motherly duties to Katie’s grandmother and eventually just left. Katie was raised by her grandmother, Nan, in Florida.
At the start of the story, Katie is getting divorced from Eric, who the reader learns was far from the ideal husband. All Katie insists on getting from the divorce is her dog, Barkimedes, whom she adores. The reader soon finds that Bark, as Katie calls him, is as neurotic as Katie is. And boy, is Katie ever a mess.
Luckily, when Katie moves back to Florida and in with her grandmother, she finds a community of friends, of all ages, who are there to love and support her in spite of her issues. Katie even gets in touch with her best friend from college, who never quite became a boyfriend but should have. Katie also finds out that her grandmother had been a mermaid performer back in the day, swimming with her friends at a roadside attraction, and her grandmother now has a mermaid swim class that she attends with her friends.
With Katie back to do costumes, Nan and her friends decide to do a reunion show. Katie’s college friend, Luca, now a documentary filmmaker, gets involved, too. While all this is going on, Katie is trying to hang on to her sanity. Because of her father, she’s been terrified of water, but that’s not all that frightens her. Katie’s afraid to love, afraid to take chances, and most of all, she’s afraid to really live.
What she finds out over the course of the book is that life is fragile, and even when we lose those we love, life goes on. The message to grab the beauty and the love and the enjoyment you can while you can will resonate with many readers. And for readers who suffer from anxiety, this book will reassure them that there is life to be lived no matter how bad the anxiety. And Larkin even manages to imbue the book with enough humor that the reader will stop to smile at the kitsch of the Florida seniors and her grandmother’s healthy new diet.
And Bark? Her anxious dog? Dogs sense our emotions, and the closer dogs are to us, the more they mirror our emotions. Bark isn’t able to calm Katie; rather, he is someone else to worry about, thus causing her more anxiety. But she loves him dearly, and she works hard to be the person Bark needs her to be. In the process, she learns what and who are important in her life.
Larkin writes a story filled with emotion about a person who struggles with things most of us can’t even imagine. It’s truly an eye-opening view into the life of someone suffering from anxiety, and Larkin makes the experience a touching and compassionate one.
Please note: This review is based on the galley provided by the publisher, Atria Books, for review purposes.