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Swimming in the Moon: A Novel

I spend hours in trains now or shivering in borrowed Model Ts, bouncing down rutted roads between towns strewn like rocks across frozen fields. 

“Lucia D’Angelo’s voice is nothing like her mother’s. She’s no nightingale with the gorgeous tones, tender and passionate, peaking and plummeting as dramatically as her moods. Yet in the rough world she’s chosen, Lucia’s words may truly change lives. In 1904, fourteen-year-old Lucia and her young mother Teresa are servants in a count’s lush villa on the Bay of Naples. Between scrubbing floors and polishing silver, Teresa soothes the unhappy countess with song until one morning’s calamity hurls mother and daughter to America, exchanging their gilded cage for icy winds off Lake Erie and Cleveland’s taut immigrant neighborhoods. Lucia blossoms and Teresa wins fleeting fame on the tawdry stage of vaudeville until old demons threaten their new life. In factories and workhouses, Lucia finds her own stage, giving voice to those who have given her a home. As roles reverse, mother and daughter reshape their fierce and primal bond.”

I really enjoyed Swimming in the Moon, a disturbing and intense but also really sensory historical novel. At first glance, it might seem similar to The Shoemaker’s Wife, but even though both stories deal with Italians immigrating to the US in the early twentieth century, the books are quite different: The Shoemaker’s Wife tells of a romance, Swimming in the Moon of a strong mother daughter relationship, and how the two protect one another. I enjoyed the latter novel more, because I found the characters more interesting and less annoying. The book felt more realistic too, although some of the villains in the story were almost too evil.

Many parts of Swimming in the Moon were definitely moving though. I’ve read many books about new immigrants coming to America and struggling to survive, and it’s really a very good angle, because you read about these poor people trying to get educated and earn enough money to survive and as in this case learn the language. The basic plot itself is not unique; Lucia, like many heroines is smart and wants to graduate high school if she can. But there are differences, particularly what their lives were like back in Italy. There were some great descriptions of Italy in the first twenty pages or so, which made Lucia’s later longing for it really realistic. Despite the initial idyllic scene, the book is filled with hardships, and mother and daughter quickly move to the rather dreary Cleveland, where they find life very different from what they’ve been used to. It’s a shock for both of them, and this is both of their stories, even though Lucia is the main character.

I really enjoyed reading of their struggle to protect one another and their fierce, often confrontational love for each other. Lucia and her mother stick together, even though they fight a lot and have a different moral code. Lucia’s mother has bouts of strangeness, and in these very tense, frightening moments, Lucia has to kind of take care of her: “as roles reverse”, if you will. Their bond is certainly “fierce and primal”, and they argue so much.

Lucia is a character you can and will root for; she’s trying to help her mother and get an education too. Perhaps in this respect, she isn’t that unique: the young immigrant girl who despite everyone else’s lack of understanding struggles to graduate high school, but in other ways she’s fully her own character. The way she is both selfish and selfless was interesting to read; she’s determined to finish her education, but she offers many times to put it off and go to work to help support the family. Her mother, however, won’t hear of it, which is unusual. 

Swimming in the Moon wasn’t quite what I was expecting; I just glanced at the plot summary before putting it on hold at the library, but I certainly enjoyed this coming-of-age story. It’s tender and fierce by turns, and beautiful and sad as well. I just love lushly described, well-written and well-plotted works of historical fiction, and Swimming in the Moon is one of those, although it is kind of “main-stream”. The novel didn’t do anything radically new, but I would say that Swimming in the Moon is worth buying, although I didn’t. 

337 pages. 

Rating: ****

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