Title: Swimming to Chicago
Author: David Mathew Barnes
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
There are some books that we really want to love but can't. Some books that just, for whatever reason, do not work for us as readers. Swimming to Chicago was a book that I had high hopes for. It sounded like a nice romance between two gay teenagers, and I'm always up for reading new LGBTQ fiction written for the young adult genre. However, the novel was less than I expected, and I didn't have many expectations to begin with. A convergence of many things I disliked made the reading experience less than pleasant after a while, and though it had some worthy moments with the LGBTQ characters, most of it fell short for me.
Alex's life has gone through the wringer. His relationship with his mother and father has become strained, and his mother seems more and more depressed as of late. Jillian, a girl that he has been best friends with for ages, is showing interest in him. To many guys, that would be a bright spot. In Alex's life, it's not so. Alex is gay - a discovery that he has kept under wraps for the most part, and he hasn't had the heart to tell Jillian. Jillian may be his best friend, but something so emotional brings out the evasiveness in Alex. It could also be how Alex truly came into it.
It came of an affair with Tommy, a guy that Alex works with. Tommy is a known popular guy that has gotten a steady reputation for being cool and straight. Neither of the boys seemed to fully comprehend what their relationship was when it first came into being, but Alex in particular started realizing more about himself as a result. To think that he never realized that he was gay. The secret is still too fresh; too confusing. He can't tell Jillian about it, although she is most certainly his best friend in the world. His relationship with Tommy is one that he sees as special, although Tommy doesn't treat it in the same way. Alex feels lost in the world - just like his mother.
Throughout the summer and into the school year, the lives of Alex, Jillian, and those around them change completely. Alex falls in love. Jillian falls in love. Alex loses someone dear to him. Jillian feels like someone dear to her is lost forever. The adults in Alex's life try to cope with his impending relationship - and a relationship that they are finding themselves becoming involved in as well. Swimming to Chicago is a novel that tries to encompass the way that people change others' lives, and in particular tries to show the growth of a gay teenager and how he sees the world.
There's really not a lot here to talk about with the main character that I can recommend. Alex is interesting and worthy of some praise, as he is a character that deals with a lot of difficult things throughout Swimming to Chicago. He deals with a mother with severe depression, and he deals with discovering his sexuality and how love comes into play with it. How he can be hurt and healed by his ability to love another man. Something about Alex is very relative, and in that regard he's a strong main character. The problem is that the other characters are focused on just as equally - yet no one ever feels fully developed. Alex's emotions come across as paper-thin in many spots, as do other characters. The time passage between events is so large, too, that one finds it difficult to see a character like Alex truly grow as a character. Between one month and the next, things can change drastically. Alex goes from just meeting a guy to being in love with him and dating him in the span of a few pages. It feels over-the-top, and it makes getting to the heart of his story practically impossible. Where is the reader supposed to go when they cannot even identify where Alex is going and why he is going there?
The other characters are much the same. Jillian has unique conflicts that initially have the reader rooting for her, but her actions quickly become ludicrous and unidentifiable in motivation. Jillian becomes a character that is hard to like because her transformation is simply told to the reader. The reader is just supposed to assume that a simple authorial statement makes up for a non-existent thread of character growth. The same goes for Alex's boyfriend, Robby, and the two adult POVs. Everything in this novel revolves around a writing style that doesn't lend itself well to characterization or multiple POVs. The characters feel like they go in circles, and the reader doesn't spend enough time with any of them to get a sense of who everyone is and what they mean in terms of the novel as an artistic whole.
What, to me, remains the biggest barrier with this novel is the writing as a whole. Barnes' style wasn't an initial turn-off for me. I quite liked it when it first started out. However, as Barnes continued to progress with adding in more character points-of-view and plot twists, I realized that nothing felt consistent or realistic. There was no character investment. People fell in love immediately. People acted unusually. Everything was being told to me. Nothing was being shown. I would get giant paragraphs stating exactly what I should have been able to see with the characters. Multiple points of view are also just hard to pull off in general. One needs strongly established characters that, when looked at through multiple points of view, come across as the same person - just in terms of how another character views them. Swimming to Chicago had none of that, and everyone felt the same. None of the characters makes the reader feel invested enough to continue on with the narrative. So much happens but none of it feels worthy of caring about, as the reader never sees character growth and reaction in relation to what goes on. Something happens from one or two perspectives, then another month passes. The general time skips just didn't work on the whole, and on the whole made Swimming to Chicago feel even more distant as a novel.
As much as I disliked Swimming to Chicago, it had redeeming aspects to it. Barnes does not have a bad style, but all of the technical choices he made with this book didn't fit. I would read him again based on his style working in the beginning of the novel, but only with the knowledge that he didn't have the same technical follies. Barnes also has written scripts before, and therein lies problems that I found within Swimming to Chicago. It felt like a cross between script and novel writing, but the writing felt like it was trying to make everything so clear in the reader's head - like the actual visual of seeing a play or film - that the dialogue and showing that comes from good book writing was left on the wayside. There was a good book in here. Barnes dealt with many serious topics that could have made an excellent (though angsty) LGBTQ YA novel. However, it read like a draft of many ideas that hadn't been fully written yet. Everything was too simplistic, too hippy-hoppy.
Swimming to Chicago just wasn't the book for me. I disliked the lack of full characterization, the way the novel moved around, the technical aspects of the POV switching, and the overt amount of angsty situations without probably build-up and purpose within the narrative. There were some commendable attempts within it, but ultimately nothing about it worked for me. I've read worse, but I've read many books that tackled this kind of LGBTQ angst in a much better manner, too.
Cover: I actually like this cover. It's very dynamic.
Rating: 2.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Bold Strokes Books!)