1925. Fifteen-year-old Catherine Quick longs to strike out into the warm waters of her Australian home just as she’s done since she was a tiny child. But now living in London with her aunt Louisa, Catherine feels that everything she values has been stripped away.
Louisa, a busy surgeon who fought boldly for women’s equality, wants Catherine to pursue an education to ensure her future freedom. Since Catherine arrived, however, Louisa can’t put a foot right and she is finding it harder to block painful memories from her past.
A chance encounter leads both women to New York where Catherine can test her mettle against the first women in the world to swim the English Channel, and where Louisa can come to an understanding with her niece and with herself.
Catherine lives a happy life with her father in Australia, and has a fantastic relationship with their housekeeper and her housekeeper’s son Michael. But when tragedy strikes, she is sent to live with aunt Louisa who lives in London and works as a doctor – and doesn’t really have much time for the niece she doesn’t even know.
There was a lot I liked about this novel. I enjoyed the focus on some very different female characters, and I did feel for poor Catherine trying to fit in with her aunt who simply had other priorities. The swimming element of the novel was interesting and – as you find out in the author’s note – loosely based on real life female swimmers of the time, and their struggles to be accepted and compete on an equal footing with male athletes.
However, I did feel that the novel tried to take on too much, and there were too many sub-plots – possible romances, family mysteries, and the struggle of women at the time in history, alongside the story of Catherine’s attempts to swim. The action also moves from Australia to London to the US, and again it all just felt like too much was crammed in at times. Yet despite this, the book somehow managed to become repetitive at times, and particularly towards the end I felt that I heard too much about Catherine’s swimming team and the newspaper photographers, and I found myself skimming bits to get to the end.
There are a few twists at the end of the novel – and an appearance by two characters that I found so implausible I assumed it was a hallucination by another character, but it turned out not to be! The main twist also didn’t feel very believable either.
In spite of my grumbles, there was a lot to like in this novel and I really loved the setting and I found Louisa to be a very interesting character. But I did feel as a whole that the book let me down, with just too much squeezed in at times, and an ending that didn’t really seem believable. I think if the focus had been on the Catherine and Louisa and how their relationship developed, this would have made for a more focused and enjoyable book overall.
My rating: 6 out of 10