|Mary Alice Monroe’s sequel to her popular novel The Beach House is much like the sea turtles it celebrates – slow, earnest but ultimately rewarding. It can be read independently of its predecessor but will be better appreciated by those who are familiar with the 2002 novel.
Toy Sooner has come a long way in the past five years. Although she grew up in an abusive household and became a teen mom to daughter Olivia (known to all as “Little Lovie”), she blossomed under the guidance of mentor Olivia Rutledge. Upon Olivia’s deathbed, Toy promised to make something of herself, and with the help of her fellow “Turtle Ladies” who patrol the Isle of Palm beaches to protect loggerhead turtle nests, she earned her college degree and found a job as an aquarist at the South Carolina Aquarium. At age 25, she is almost, but not quite, secure in her abilities as a mother and a professional.
When an injured female loggerhead washes up on the shore near Toy’s home, she convinces her supervisors at the Aquarium to set up a makeshift turtle hospital. Before she knows it, she is in charge of several injured turtles and is working on a grant proposal to fund the development of a permanent facility. Not only is Toy becoming more confident in her professional skills, but she is also tentatively starting a relationship with hunky marine biologist Ethan Legare. But when Little Lovie’s father, who abandoned her at birth, reappears, Toy makes decisions that put her at odds with Ethan and her friends. And just as she is reaching a professional milestone, her mothering faces the ultimate test.
Swimming Lessons is the perfect beach book to read as you are sitting beneath an umbrella and listening to the incessant yet soothing pounding of the waves on the sand. The plot advances slowly without fireworks for the most part as Toy learns to stand on her own two feet, even when she makes mistakes along the way. Toy gets plenty of advice (both welcome and not) from Cara Rutledge Beauchamps, heroine of The Beach House, now blissfully happy with husband Beau but struggling to conceive a child. The power of women’s friendship is also highlighted through Toy and Cara’s interactions with senior Turtle Lady Flo Prescott, who isn’t quite ready to admit that she needs assistance to stay in her home, and Cara’s best friend Emmi Peterson, who is undergoing an ugly divorce. The actions the four women take to support each other is in some ways more satisfying than the romance between Toy and Ethan, which is predictable and rather uninspiring.
Monroe’s characters, especially the male ones, are prone to stilted, didactic speeches, which can make them seem unrealistic and one-dimensional. But Monroe certainly knows how to write female characters who grow and change through their experiences, and by the end of Swimming Lessons readers will want to know more about what the future holds in store for Toy, Cara, Flo and Emmi. No sequel is promised, but Monroe has written a companion book about her beloved sea turtles entitled Turtle Summer, A Journal for My Daughter for children ages 4-8.
The South Carolina coastline comes alive through Monroe’s descriptive writing skills and her compassion for nature. Part of my fondness for this book comes from its mention of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach, North Carolina. I’ve spent my summer vacation in Topsail for the past 7 years and have visited the Turtle Hospital numerous times, never failing to be impressed by the work that is done to rehabilitate turtles who are injured primarily through the stupidity of mankind. The author’s note at the back of the book provides an address for donations, and I encourage readers who enjoy the novel to support this worthy cause.