Picture J.M.Barrie and you might think of Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Neverland and perhaps a film or three. But spare a thought for the location inspiration, which was historic Stanway House in the Cotswolds. In The J.M.Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society, Barbara Zitwer’s debut novel, architect Joey Rubin is obsessed with Peter Pan and so the opportunity to design a renovation for Stanway House is right up her alley.
Unfortunately, her alley is also in New York and this means she has to fly over to England immediately, leaving everything behind her. Actually, it seems there’s not much to leave behind. In driving her career forward, Joey has already drifted away from her college friends, her best friend who used to live next door moved to England when she got married, and what remaining relationships she had were ruined by her fling with a colleague who was less than enthusiastic about her having friendships other than with him. So all in all perhaps England can represent a fresh start for Joey. First up though, is repairing her relationship with Sarah, now a housewife and mother of 4, before tackling Stanway House and its widowed caretaker.
While set amongst an interesting sounding backdrop, the story is really about Joey’s lack of long term relationships in New York and how she finds it hard to let herself relax – she is driven to succeed and nothing that stands in her way can be allowed to remain – even including time spent for herself or with her friends. In England, however, she stumbles across that most rare of things – a group of ladies who have been friends for 60 years or more, who meet to swim in the local pond every day – including in winter when the ice forms on the water’s surface. Apparently taking a dip in icy water can bring remarkable levels of clarity – before hypothermia sets in, that is. Still, The ice cracks in more ways than one as Joey finds herself allowing friendships to form with the ladies of the Swimming Society – and soon, with the next generation as well. Because, being in a small village, everyone is related to everyone else, and Lilia of the swimming society is Ian-the-widowed-caretaker’s mother-in-law.
The novel is short, and quite easy to read. Joey is perfectly pictured as the career-minded architect until she meets Ian and the world shakes on its foundations, thankfully though, Stanway House is unaffected and her architectural designs can be realised using local contractors when she returns to New York. I was left wanting more though, needing to know more about how Joey could bring her new sense of the importance of relationships back into her career-focused life in New York. Perhaps that will be in a sequel.
Available now: Allen & Unwin RRP$22.95