Swimming Toward the Ocean
by Carole L. Glickfeld
From the author of the Flannery OConnor Award-winning collection Useful Gifts,
a sharp and tender debut novel chronicling the boisterous life and loves of a Russian
Jewish immigrant family in 1950s New York City.
Chenia is a Betty Grable look-alike, passionate, sharp-witted, in many ways still
Old-World. Her husband Ruben is a handsome philanderer; they have three children. No one
expects the devoted Chenia to fall under the spell of a lover of her own, but the Arnows
lives unfold in many surprises. In tart and seductive storytelling, Swimming Toward the
Ocean follows husbands and wives and children through an often comical kaleidoscope of
shifting and misguided connections, ever sympathetic to their restlessif stumblingquests for love.
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1. In reconstructing her parents' lives, Devorah describes feelings and events of which she
has no direct knowledge. Do her assumptions and interpretations undermine her reliability
as a narrator? Are life stories, whether fictional, biographical, or autobiographical,
ever completely "objective"?
2. Images of and references to water recur throughout Swimming Toward the Ocean.
Does water serve as a metaphor in the novel? If so, for what?
3. In what ways do the Arnows represent the universal experience of immigrants in this
country? How do their individual expectations affect their behavior toward one another?
What goals, if any, do Chenia and Ruben share?
4. How do Chenia's superstitions and traditional beliefs influence the way she rears her
children? What is the significance of the statement, "My mother's heart is bursting
with affection for her son, but this she doesn't say" [p. 31]? In what ways are Mimi
and Sheldon shaped by their mother's remoteness and lack of outward affection? Does Chenia
treat Devorah differently, and if so, why?
5. Does Chenia provide Devorah and her siblings with the moral or ethical guidance we
normally expect from parents? What values does she teach them? What role does Ruben play
in the children's lives? How do the choices Devorah and Mimi make as grown, married women
reflect their reactions to their parents' marriage and their own childhood experiences?
6. Despite her old-fashioned upbringing and her strong notions of sin and punishment,
Chenia is irresistibly drawn to Harry. What makes her so vulnerable to him? How do the
emotions and feelings he elicits transform the way she thinks about herself?
7. How would Chenia's life have been different if she had not met Harry? To what extent did
the affair rescue her? In what ways did it make her life more difficult?
8. How do Devorah's descriptions of her mother's affair with Harry differ from her accounts
of Ruben's infidelities with Trudy and Bertha? How do the specific events she recounts, as
well as her tone, influence your impressions of their motivations and the depth of their
feelings? Does she judge one parent more harshly than the other? Do you think she
recognizes and understands her father's need to be with other women?
9. The setting plays an important role in Swimming Toward the Ocean. What physical
details does Glickfeld use to evoke the period? Which cultural, social, and political
references are most effective in illuminating the particular milieu of the Arnows, their
friends, and extended family?
10. From Devorah's birth to Chenia's first encounter with Harry and Mimi's unlikely
friendship with Sofie, the concepts of fate and coincidence are integral to the plot
development of the novel. Does the author make these events credible? To what extent are
the characters responsible for their own destinies and to what extent are their lives
shaped by chance?
11. How does the life the Arnows have constructed for themselves differ from the other lives
depicted in the novel? What do Glickfeld's portraits of Harry, Chenia's sister Ruchel and
her husband, Trudy and Barney Fleisch, and Bertha Landau reveal about the process of
assimilation? What factors, both practical and psychological, influence the various
characters' ability to make a place for themselves in American society?
12. Does Chenia's story represent an experience that is typical of women of her generation?
In what ways does she conform to society's rules and expectations? Other than her affair
with Harry, what examples are there of her refusal to follow the rules? Do Ruben's
behavior and attitude, as well as the limited options available to Chenia, justify acts
which might otherwise seem selfish or immoral?
13. In imagining Chenia's reaction to seeing Harry at the theater years after she has made
another life for herself, Devorah writes, "What is she thinking, that Harry will call
her up and it will be as before? Even if she could love this man again, she thinks, she
can never stop hating him" [p. 332]. In light of this, why does Chenia agree to meet
with him? What does she hope will happen?
14. Chenia has three very different relationships in the course of the novel: her marriage
to Ruben, her affair with Harry, and her marriage to Sol. How do each of these
relationships illuminate Chenia's personality and her needs at different times in her
life? Which relationship do you think best reflects the woman Chenia really is? The woman
she wants to be?
15. Is the ending consistent with the spirit of the novel? Does it bring the relationship
between Devorah and Chenia to an appropriate close? Does Devorah see similarities between
her mother and herself? Does she fully forgive Chenia for the hurt she has caused?
16. What literary traditions (or genres) might you use to classify Swimming Toward the
Ocean? Would you characterize it as a family saga? A love story? A coming-of-age
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"Achieves such a fine balance of humor, pathos, and atmosphere that one is tempted to call it a masterpiece of its kind."
"The story-telling is engaging, full of the quotidian joys and sorrows of a winning and indomitable woman."
The Washington Post Book World
"The Arnow family is utterly irresistible…. Swimming Toward the Ocean navigates important family territory with precision and warmth."