Laura Moore’s Night Swimming is a fleshed-out retelling of the Ugly Duckling story, in which the metamorphosing swan must now face its final challenge, the ultimate test of whether its transformation goes more than skin deep. It’s a truly exceptional tale, comprised of breath-stealing romance, a mystery to be solved within a marine biologist’s ocean “laboratory,” and a subtle lesson on the symbiotic balancing act between industrious human beings and the planet that sustains them.
Dr. Lily Banyon, a senior researcher at the Marine Center in Massachusetts, is a highly respected marine biologist whose specialty is coral reefs. When the Center gets a call requesting help to assess the reefs off the coast of her hometown of Coral Beach, Florida, Lily is the natural choice to go. It’s the last place she wants to be, having left it behind a decade before, along with the memories of her awkward childhood. Learning that Sean McDermott, her childhood nemesis and the embodiment of her past failures, is not only Coral Beach’s mayor but also the chair of the Coral Reef Advisory Panel, does nothing to mitigate her dread. Sean is none too happy about the prodigal’s return himself since he has spent years struggling to sublimate the confusing combination of desire and yearning he feels for Lily; sensing that imminent catastrophe will stalk their every interaction, he steels himself for a wrenching two weeks of hell.
The coral reef study was commissioned because a group of developers, led by the seedy Pete Ferrucci, propose to expand Coral Bay’s marina for publicly benevolent purposes (jobs for the locals) but privately self-interested ones. Accustomed to the political realities of the work she does, Lily is fully prepared for the typical cast of characters she encounters. But while Ferrucci’s role is easy enough to spot, her questions about Sean’s motivations and the type of man he has become vie with her unwelcome, and long suppressed, attraction toward him, keeping her off balance most of the time. Add to that a doting grandmother she has shamelessly ignored over the years and the hypercritical mother now seeking redemption and you have all the ingredients for Lily’s baptism by fire.
There are so many wonderful things about this story, not the least of which is Moore’s determination to avoid well-traveled paths. Because it isn’t the physical Lily that has changed; she’d already morphed into game-show-hostess look-alike from gangly nerd before fleeing Coral Beach. Away from the scrutiny of the home town to which she had never felt she belonged, however, Lily has come into her own, in a field that combines her facility for sciences with her lifelong love affair with the water: “Immersed in it, Lily was transformed. Rid of all terrestrial awkwardness….Lily became an entirely new creature, her need for air secondary.” Her dedication and sense of responsibility is more than matched by Sean’s, though his easy charm and seemingly effortless successes have always chafed at Lily. Writing him off as insincere and antagonistic seems safer for her wary heart than the alternative.
Well written, with seamless transitions from inner monologue to outer action, Night Swimming is a delicious love story and a fascinating foray into the wonders of the world beneath the sea. Through snippets of backstory skillfully threaded in, it’s easy to understand how the competitiveness and friction between Lily and Sean eventually transmute into a combustive mix of mistrust and desire. There’s humor here, as well, as when Lily and Sean take advantage of opportunities to one-up each other, and when Sean briefly considers throwing Lily’s mother out the window: “It wouldn’t hurt. This was a ranch; she’d land in the shrubbery.” Sean’s secretary is a pistol, the proverbial Wonder Woman who props him up, and uses the “thumb screws” he accuses her of carrying to maneuver people into taking responsibility where they’d rather not. Two of the most important secondary characters, however, are the protagonists’ grandmothers, lifelong friends who are no slouches themselves at the subtle art of manipulation; and, look out, because they’re on a mission.
I have very few and minor quibbles with this story. On rare occasion the prose, particularly the dialogue, was slightly awkward and flowery, and POV-shift purists should be aware that Moore frequently switches perspective within scenes. Also, one of the villains might be viewed as too easily villainous, though, if you consider how envy, resentment and a sense of entitlement might combine in a personality, the character seemed pretty realistic to me.
Readers who look for quick and easy conquest or melodrama will not find it here. Night Swimming is much more subtle than that, successfully capturing the ever-shifting struggle between irresistible attraction and the resistance it engenders, as well as the instinct for self-preservation underlying the latter. The protagonists’ inner monologues serve to articulate the compelling attraction between Sean and Lily without ever descending into excessive lust-think. What they did especially well was to chart the minute shifts in perception that enable Sean and Lily to rethink the clues, and honestly take each other’s measure for the first time. Particularly beautiful were those moments of clarity for our hero and heroine, such as this one for Sean: “He was seeing once again what a special, what a giving, what an utterly compelling woman Lily had become….Hope flared bright inside him. He wasn’t chasing an illusion after all.”
In a nutshell, Night Swimming uses events that might be plucked from the headlines of any newspaper as a backdrop for second chances: for lovers, for families and even for the coral reefs that contribute to healthy ecosystems when they are allowed to thrive. This is one I cannot recommend highly enough.