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Florence Adler Swims Forever

A Novel


“The perfect summer read” (USA TODAY) begins with a shocking tragedy that results in three generations of the Adler family grappling with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets across the course of one summer.

“Rachel Beanland is a writer of uncommon wit and wisdom, with a sharp and empathetic eye for character. She’ll win you over in the most old fashioned of ways: She simply tells a hell of a story.” —Rebecca Makkai, Pulitzer Finalist for The Great Believers

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones and an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

Chapter 1: Gussie Gussie
Gussie Feldman didn’t enjoy swimming but she did like to lie on the wet sand, in the shadow of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, and wait for the tiniest ripple of a wave to wash over her. If she positioned herself just so, her body rose with the incoming tide, and for a brief moment, she felt weightless.

She was lying in just such a manner, staring up at the bright blue sky, when her aunt Florence’s face came into her field of vision. “I discovered a lovely note when I arrived home,” Florence said. “I want to give my compliments to the artist.”

Gussie grinned. She had devoted more than a quarter of an hour to writing the note, which she’d carefully positioned on the Oriental rug in the entryway of her grandparents’ apartment, where Florence would be sure to see it. With her colored pencils, she had written in big, purple letters, Dear Florence! And Anna. We are at the beach. Come have fun! Love, Gussie. At the last minute, she decided she had not used enough exclamation marks, so she added three more after Florence’s name but stopped short of allocating any to Anna. Maybe, if her grandparents’ houseguest noticed she hadn’t been awarded any, she’d decide to stay at the apartment.

“Do you want to be a mermaid?” Gussie asked Florence now, hoping to capitalize on her aunt’s good mood. Sometimes, if Gussie asked sweetly, Florence would cross her legs at the ankles and pretend the two of them were merpeople, out for a swim around the Tongan Islands, which Gussie had read about in her picture book Fairy Tales of the South Seas.

“For a few minutes. Then I’m going to go out for a swim.”

Florence lay down beside Gussie in the surf, and the two of them bumped against each other as the waves lapped at their ankles and hips and shoulders. When their skin touched, Gussie felt shy. It was always like this when her aunt returned home from college. It took time for Gussie to relearn Florence’s face and the amount of space she took up in a room and the funny way she talked to Gussie like she was both a beloved child and a trusted grown-up.

“What do you think of Anna?” Florence asked as she propped herself up on her elbows and gave Anna a wave. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded with people, but Gussie spotted her right away.

“I think it’s her fault I have to sleep on the sun porch.”

Florence let out a loud cackle. “Nonsense. I spent my entire childhood begging your Nana and Papa to clear out that sun porch. Mainly so I could get away from your mother.” She reached out and pinched Gussie in the ribs. “You’re a lucky girl.”

Gussie didn’t know about any of that. The sun porch was fine—no tinier, in actual fact, than her bedroom in her parents’ apartment. The room had a bank of windows that faced the ocean, and if she stood on her tiptoes, she could see beyond the pitched roofs of the homes that lined Virginia Avenue, all the way to the beach, where the blue-and-white umbrellas looked like tiny pinwheels. The view was nice but, on summer mornings, when the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean and its long rays bored through the glass, the room became unbearably hot. In those moments, Gussie wished her grandparents had remained in their house on Atlantic Avenue for the summer.

“I wish we weren’t in the apartment,” she allowed herself to say out loud, since her grandparents were yards away in their beach chairs. In the summer months, Esther and Joseph rented out their house—just one block from the beach—to tourists and moved back into the apartment above the bakery, where, Esther reminded anyone who complained, the family had lived quite happily when Florence and her older sister, Fannie, were small.

“Do you know how many summers I spent wishing I weren’t in that apartment?” Florence asked.

“How many?”

“God, I have no idea,” she said, sending a small splash of water in Gussie’s general direction. “It was a rhetorical question.”

“What’s rhetorical mean?”

Florence looked up at the sky and thought for a moment. “Something you say because it sounds good but not because you actually expect an answer from anyone.”

“Then why say it?”

“Because it’s better than saying nothing at all?” She squeezed a handful of wet sand through her fingers. “But when you put it like that, it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t all just tell each other what we mean.”

Gussie scrunched up her nose and grabbed at her own fistful of sand. What Florence seemed to forget was that, since Gussie was only seven, no one ever told her anything—one way or the other. Everything she’d ever learned about anything she had learned by keeping quiet and paying attention.

Take her mother’s confinement, for instance. She first learned her mother, Fannie, was expecting another baby because she’d overheard her say something to Mrs. Kingman when they had stopped by her shop for a pair of stockings. She guessed the pregnancy was risky because she’d heard her grandfather warn her mother to be careful on several different occasions in recent months. And she knew Dr. Rosenthal had recommended strict bed rest at Atlantic City Hospital because her mother had repeated his prescription to Esther when she’d returned from a recent doctor’s appointment.

There had been a good bit of debate between Gussie’s mother and grandmother over what to do with Gussie while her mother was on bed rest. Remaining with her father, Isaac, had turned out to be out of the question. Gussie knew this because she had overheard Esther tell Fannie so in precisely those words. “Gussie remaining at your apartment is out of the question.”

Gussie was sure her father would balk when he learned that her mother intended to send her to live with her grandparents for the summer but, as her mother’s confinement neared, not a word was said about the plan, one way or the other. The day before Fannie was to be admitted to Atlantic City Hospital, she packed Gussie’s summer clothes and bathing suit, some of her books, her jacks, and coloring pencils away in an old suitcase. The bag sat in the apartment’s narrow hallway, a boulder that Isaac had to step over to get to the kitchen. When Gussie could no longer stand his silence on the subject, she begged, “Father, can’t I stay with you? Here?”

“Gus-Gus,” Isaac said, as if he were going to give her a straightforward response, “what in the world would we get into, knocking around by ourselves?”

Gussie had begun to wonder if her entire life might be rhetorical—no answers for any of it—when Florence pulled her back to the present, “Remember, knees and heels together. If you’re a mermaid you can only move your feet. I mean, fins.”

Gussie pushed off the sandy bottom and scooted through the waves, using her arms to steer and kicking her tail fiercely. Always, she was careful to keep her chin above water. “How do I look?” she called over her shoulder, but Florence wasn’t watching her, wasn’t even looking in her direction. Instead, she sat in the breaking waves, studying the shore.

Gussie circled back, waved a hand in front of Florence’s face. “Let’s pretend you’re the mermaid in the glass tank at Steel Pier, and I’ll swim from Australia to save you.”

“Why do I need to be saved?” said Florence, who still looked very far away. “Don’t I like my life at the Pier?”

“You want to be free to swim about in the ocean, silly.”

Florence turned to face Gussie then, giving her niece her full attention. “Yes, you’re quite right. I nearly forgot.”

When Florence and Gussie returned to the chairs Joseph and Esther had rented, they found Anna sitting on a blanket, alone.

“Your parents went for a walk,” Anna said to Florence, completely ignoring Gussie.

Florence motioned for a small, pleated bag, within arm’s reach of Anna, and Anna passed it to her. As Florence rooted through it, a red bathing cap escaped. Gussie reached for it and handed it to Florence, who waved it away, one hairpin already in hand and three more in her teeth. While Florence pulled her short, brown hair away from her face, Gussie held the rubber cap in her lap, admiring it. Her aunt always had the prettiest things. Tiny stamped divots ran across the cap’s surface in neat rows. Each one reminded Gussie of a starburst.

“Are bathing caps required at this beach?” Anna asked.

Florence mumbled something through her pursed lips but it was unintelligible on account of the pins, so Gussie answered for her. “Not anymore.”

Anna exasperated Gussie but for no real reason. She was quiet and a little hard to understand but she was also perfectly nice, and even pretty—with dark brown hair, green eyes, and pale skin that was unlikely to get any darker if Anna continued to wear drab cotton dresses to the beach.

“My hair just gets in my eyes when I swim,” Florence said after removing the last pin from her mouth.

“Very good,” said Anna, but the word good came out sounding more like gut. Anna’s English was close to perfect but her accent was heavy, and sometimes her words came out slowly, as if her sentences were a string of taffy. Often, Gussie didn’t have the patience to wait on them. Gussie’s mother had told her to be kind—that she should try to imagine what it must be like for Anna to be in a new place, so far from her parents, but Gussie wasn’t inclined to be sympathetic.

Gussie heard a high-pitched whistle followed by a “heigh-ho!” and turned to watch Stuart Williams leap from the Boardwalk onto the hot sand.

“Have you abandoned your post?” her aunt shouted at him as he raced toward them and grabbed Florence up in a hug. Anna and Gussie stood to greet him, too.

Gussie thought Stuart was very handsome. He didn’t look anything like the men in her family, or any of the men at the synagogue, for that matter. He had clear, blue eyes and short, blond hair, and in the summer months, his skin tanned to a golden brown. He wore the same blue suit that all the Atlantic City Beach Patrol lifeguards wore—a wool one-piece with a white belt and the letters ACBP stitched across his chest.

“Dan said you were here, so I had to come see the siren of the sea for myself.” He rubbed the top of Gussie’s head with his fist and extended a hand toward Anna. “I’m Stuart.”

“Stuart, this is Anna from Germany,” said Florence. “She’s staying with my parents for the summer. Until she goes to college.”

“Good to meet you, Anna from Germany,” he said with a smile. “Where are you going to school?”

“New Jersey State Teachers College.”

“Ah, in picturesque Trenton.”

“He’s a wisecrack. Don’t pay him any attention,” said Florence to Anna, conspiratorially. “Trenton’s fine.”

Stuart’s eyes were shiny and bright. “When’d you get back?” he said, returning his attention to Florence.

Florence put a finger to her lips, as if she were doing a complicated arithmetic problem. “Three or four days ago?”

“And this is the first I’m seeing you? I’m outraged.”

“I went looking for you at the States Avenue stand but they said you’d been booted down the beach.”

He wagged his head in the direction of The Covington. “Long story. And one that’s probably best told from the stern of a boat.”

“Stuart coaches the Ambassador Swim Club in the off-season,” Florence said to Anna. “Spent four years ordering me around.”

“A lot of good it did,” said Stuart.

“He’s a monster,” Florence said to Anna, which Gussie knew was not actually true. It bothered her when grown-ups said the opposite of what they meant.

“So, you’re really going to do it?” he asked Florence when everyone’s smiles had faded from their faces.

“I am.”

“How’s the training been going?”

“Fine, good. I’m in the pool all the time, so it’s been good to get back in the ocean.”

Gussie wondered if Anna even knew about Florence’s plan. She was about to say something when Anna asked, “Is there a competition?”

“Just with myself,” Florence said with a laugh.

“She’s going to swim the English Channel,” said Stuart.

Florence corrected him, “Attempt to swim the English Channel.”

“Don’t pretend to be modest,” he said. “We can all see right through you.”

Florence reached over, touched Anna’s arm, and whispered, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Don’t listen to him,” and to Gussie’s great surprise, Anna laughed. The noise was so foreign, Gussie didn’t know quite what to make of it. Anna had arrived in Atlantic City in March—Joseph had driven up to Jersey City to collect her from the ferry terminal—and, in all that time, Gussie had never seen her eyes so much as twinkle.

Florence turned serious. “Stuart’s actually been a big help.”

“Might not want to give me too much credit until you make it across.”

“How long does it take to swim the whole thing?” Anna asked.

“Trudy Ederle did it in a little over fourteen hours. I’m hoping to do it in under twelve.”

“That’s a long time in the water,” said Anna.

Gussie was desperate to contribute to the conversation. “Florence says your tongue swells up like a balloon.”

“Is that true?” said Anna.

Florence shrugged her shoulders. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“She’ll be great,” said Stuart. “By the time I’m through with her this summer, she might as well fly across.”

“Do you start in England or France?” Anna asked.

“France,” said Florence. “Cape Gris-Nez. The tide’s a little more forgiving if you swim toward Dover.”

“So, will you go to France, too?” Anna asked Stuart.

Stuart looked as if he were about to say something but Florence cut him off. “Over my father’s dead body. Both he and Mother think it would be completely improper.”

“Once she gets to France, she’s got Bill Burgess. He’s world class. She won’t need me.”

“Not true,” said Florence.

Something about the easy way Florence, Stuart, and even Anna talked made Gussie yearn to be a grown-up. As she watched them, she practiced resting a hand on her hip and using the other to make big, important gestures. Stuart crossed his arms at his chest, and she tried that, too, but it didn’t feel as natural. Eventually, when he noticed she was mimicking him, he winked at her and she tied her arms in knots behind her back.

Stuart looked at his wrist but must have realized he wasn’t wearing a watch. “I’ve got to get back. Meet me at the Kentucky Avenue stand tomorrow morning at six?” he said to Florence. “I’ll tail you in the boat for a couple of hours.”

Florence didn’t say anything, just lifted her chin, which Gussie interpreted as a yes.

“It was nice to meet you,” Anna said to Stuart as he prepared to depart.

“You too.”

Gussie went to say her own good-bye but Stuart had already begun to jog back toward the Boardwalk.

“He seems nice,” Anna said to Florence once he was well out of earshot. “And also completely in love with you.”

“Stuart?” said Florence, as if she’d never entertained the possibility. “God, no. Now, where did I put my cap?”

Gussie, who’d had it the whole time, handed it to her begrudgingly.

“Do you mind watching Gussie until my parents get back?” Florence said to Anna as she stretched the rubber taut and yanked the cap over her hair.

Gussie couldn’t help feeling annoyed. It had been her idea to go to the beach, and now she was stuck with Anna, who was unlikely to pretend to be a mermaid or much of anything else if she couldn’t even be bothered to change into a proper bathing suit.

“You’re swimming tomorrow morning. With Stuart.” Gussie pleaded with Florence, in a last-ditch effort to redeem the afternoon. But her aunt wasn’t hearing her. She just tucked the last wisps of her hair underneath the bathing cap, blew her a kiss, and headed off in the direction of the ocean.

Gussie watched as Florence waded into the water, past her knees and then her hips. She dove into the crest of a wave, and by the time Gussie could see her again, she was swimming. Florence reminded Gussie of the dolphins they sometimes spotted offshore, so graceful they barely looked like they were moving. She watched her for several more minutes, as she grew smaller and smaller. Eventually, all Gussie could make out against the horizon was Florence’s red bathing cap, and then nothing at all.

Gussie was back in the water, eyes trained on the sky, when she heard three short whistles. She got her feet under her in time to watch one of the lifeguards in the stand nearest them run toward Garden Pier. There, two other lifeguards heaved a rescue boat into the waves.

“Gussie,” Anna called. “Get out. Now.”

It took a moment for Gussie to shake the water out of her ears. Had she heard her correctly? The beach seemed unnaturally quiet, as if she were watching a film with no sound.

She looked up the beach and watched as her grandparents ambled toward them.

“Where’s Florence?” Esther asked in a loud enough voice to be heard over the sound of the breaking waves.

Anna responded. “She went for a swim.”


“Maybe an hour ago.”

Gussie watched as her grandmother took in Anna and Gussie, then the small cluster of people who had gathered farther down the beach, then the boat hastening toward the horizon. Without warning, Esther took off down the beach at a run, Joseph following close behind. Gussie had never seen either of her grandparents run anywhere before, and she was surprised at how proficient they looked doing it.

She waded ashore, and Anna wrapped her in a towel, then led her in the direction of Garden Pier, too. By the time they reached Esther and Joseph, the rescue boat was so far from shore, it was difficult to make out what was happening. Gussie shielded her eyes with her hand, trying to see more clearly. It looked as if the vessel had stopped, and one or both of the lifeguards had jumped overboard.

“Is it her?” Esther whispered to Joseph in a voice loud enough for Gussie to hear.

“Who?” Gussie asked, but no one, including Anna, responded.

After several long minutes, the rescue boat began to grow larger again. Gussie could make out only one lifeguard rowing toward the shore. Where had the other one gone? It wasn’t until the boat grew much closer that she saw the second lifeguard, bent over something in the bottom of the boat.

The boat plowed onto the wet sand, about a dozen yards from where the small crowd had gathered. Its oars clattered against the oarlocks and landed in the sand, and the men worked quickly to lift what could only have been a person from the bottom of the boat.

That’s when Gussie saw it—the flash of color—and she looked at Anna to see if she’d seen it, too. Anna’s hand moved to her mouth. The lifeguards lifted the body, pale and motionless, out of the boat and onto the sand but all Gussie could bear to look at was the red cap on her aunt’s head. She covered her ears with her hands as the air filled with the sound of her grandmother’s wails.
Becca Duval

Rachel Beanland is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She lives with her husband and three children in Richmond, Virginia. Florence Adler Swims Forever is her first novel.

“Florence Adler Swims Forever is a family saga that manages to capture complicated (and messy) family dynamics while remaining big-hearted and empathetic towards its characters, flawed as they may be—all while transporting the reader to the sun-drenched beaches of Atlantic City in the 1930s. But my favorite thing about Rachael Beanland’s debut is that while the novel opens with a tragedy, the story is ultimately more of hope and perseverance than heartbreak. Plus, there’s a wonderful love story that will warm even the coldest of hearts!” —Carina G, Editor, on Florence Adler Swims Forever

-One of USA Today's "Best Books of 2020"
-A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
-Listed as one of Good Morning America's "25 Novels You'll Want to Read This Summer"
-One of Parade's  "26 Best Books to Read This Summer"

"Rachel Beanland is a writer of uncommon wit and wisdom, with a sharp and empathetic eye for character. She'll win you over in the most old fashioned of ways: She simply tells a hell of a story." 
Rebecca Makkai, Pulitzer Prize Finalist for The Great Believers

“FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER is a riveting page-turner about characters who know how to keep a fierce secret, even when it is nearly impossible to do so.”
De'Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills

"I started reading FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER and did not stop until its final words. Rachel Beanland so completely transports readers to the summer of 1934 in Atlantic City and a tragedy that changes the lives of one family there that I expected to smell salt air and see ocean waves crashing when I looked up again. What a bighearted novel this is. What a glorious debut."
Ann Hood, author of The Book That Matters Most

“Rachel Beanland has written a wonderfully assured and completely engrossing first novel. From the very first page, I was completely invested in the lives of Florence, Gussie, Anna and the rest. Florence Adler Swims Forever has much to say about family, loss and all the ways we have to wonder what might have been, and it does so with great skill and a deeply humane vision. I could not recommend it more highly."
Kevin Powers, author of National Book Award finalist The Yellow Birds

“Beanland has written a beautiful account of the ways love can harm as often as it heals. This is classic storytelling at its best, with a keen eye for character and a loving heart.” 
Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased

"Florence Adler Swims Forever is a tender, funny, frank look at how family and faith can frustrate us, sustain us, and keep us human.” 
Blair Hurley, author of The Devoted

“Grief may propel this story, but the overall effect is one of joy—especially at watching such an assured and dazzling debut writer at work. The Adlers are as real as your closest friends, and their tale of perseverance couldn’t be more timely. From its unforgettable opening and through the rippling current of her characters’ lives, Beanland shows a warmth and humanity that will bring readers back again and again.”
—Brian Castleberry, author of Nine Shiny Objects

“The best fiction elucidates a time, place, and people. This is it. Right here. With precise, beautiful prose and spot-on dialogue, Rachel Beanland’s debut novel, FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER, is a flawless work of fiction that captures a flawed but big-hearted Jewish family navigating Atlantic City during the Great Depression. This beachside New Jersey town is as vivid a character as the family inhabiting it and even the most damaged characters contain glimmers of hope.”
Michele Young-Stone, author of Above Us Only Sky

“A perfect summer read.… In less than ten pages, I became a mere subject of the audience, allowing Beanland's storytelling ability to overpower me, rather than taking the story in consciously and internally commenting…. What's remarkable is not how quickly the book hooked me, but how it held my attention during and after reading. After spending a pleasant afternoon flying through the first 96 pages, I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about the plot. I simply couldn't put it out of my head. I finished in two days…. I felt awe.”—USA Today

"Beanland’s novel draws the reader in. The situation she describes is poignant and the characters she develops win us over with their private grief. Beanland is particularly good at conjuring 1930s Atlantic City, with its small family-owned hotels yielding to larger, more commercial palaces. The historical moment is fraught as American Jews try to save relatives in an increasingly untenable Nazi Germany. We see cruel obstacles to immigration, and the growing chasm between European Jews and their increasingly prosperous American counterparts. This is a book about the American dream. The dream is not without costs, and the dreamers are not immune to tragedy." —New York Times Book Review

"Beanland deftly weaves various historical events and themes: the rise of the Nazi regime, family secrets, the struggle between classes, religious tensions, sexuality, and familial love. Yet it works, and this novel is as close to unputdownable as they come. Based on a true story—beautifully described in the Author’s Note—Florence Adler Swims Forever is a memorable debut." —Amazon Book Review

"Beanland beautifully handles the depiction of loss and rebuilding life without a loved one, describing moments that are by turns painful and moving. The thick emotional tension will please fans of character-driven historicals." —Publishers Weekly

"Readers of Emma Straub and Curtis Sittenfeld will devour this richly drawn debut family saga based on the story of an ancestor of the author’s." —Library Journal