Friday, September 7, 2012

Review: The Underwater Window by Dan Stephenson

I spent 15 years as a competitive swimmer. I can't even begin to calculate how many hours I logged in the pool, how many miles I swam over that time period. Swimming was a major part of my life. I woke up to it and I went to sleep to it. I spent countless weekends Friday through Sunday at swim meets, cheering for teammates until my throat was raw, and pushing my body to its physical limit in hopes of a personal best time. I even married my husband because of it, meeting him in the pool in college. My coaches and my teammates throughout the years made me who I am today. Make no mistake though, I was not an elite swimmer. The only thing I have in common with Michael Phelps is that my best event was the 200 fly. In terms of the general population, I was a great swimmer. In the swimming world, I was a decent little workhorse of a swimmer but no standout. But the wonderful thing about swimming is that no matter what your achievement level, there are some things that are universal for all swimmers. And it was those wonderful, nostalgic universalities that grabbed me from the beginning in Dan Stephenson's novel about two Olympic caliber swimmers, teammates, best friends, and fierce competitors. The Underwater Window gave me a chance to relive the best of my swimming days in a story I never could have lived.

Doyle Wilson is 24 years old and he's an elite caliber swimmer. He's put in his time in the pool, analysed his stroke, pushed himself to go ever faster. But he's never made the Olympics and this year could be his last chance. His best friend, teammate, and arch rival Archie Hayes is at the height of his career. The two of them push each other in the pool and Doyle, as the elder statesman, watches Archie's back outside of the pool as well. Doyle and Archie have competed against each other for years and know each other in and out but they couldn't be more different as swimmers. Archie competes without thought and Doyle analyses every aspect of his race. As a matter of fact, Doyle is starting to wonder if his swimming career is finished. He's deferred his medical school acceptance for a year and he's wondering just how much longer he can compete at this level. But can he give up before he has one last shot at making his Olympic dream?

Surrounding Doyle are a collection of supportive, loving secondary characters who help him ease through his thought process about the sport and life post-swimming. There's Molly, his dearest friend, the girl who is there for him through everything despite there being no romantic relationship in the offing unless Doyle stops swimming. Doyle's old college coach, who took a chance on Doyle and loves him as a son, is a reliable sounding board whenever Doyle needs to talk through his decisions. His current coach, Curtains, pushes him in the pool and like all the best coaches coaxes the best from him, both in the pool and out of it. And then there's Archie, who, despite their rivalry, is steadfast and loyal when needed but also able to help Doyle let go, let off steam, and have some fun.

Although the book is very definitely centered around Doyle's swimming and his driving desire to make the Olympic team, to win gold, it is also a coming of age novel with Doyle reflecting on his life so far, where he ultimately wants to be, and a story about friendship and commitment and the people who stand behind each of us as we reach for our dreams. Swimming, as many sports do, teaches the athlete much about him or herself and offers skills that translate surprisingly well to the non-swimming world. And Doyle is in the midst of his last push at internalizing these skills. Each chapter starts with an italicized portion that explains an aspect of swimming or the swimmer's life. These bits help the non-swimming reader to understand what drives a person back and forth in a pool for so many hours, days, months, and years. They cover swimming history, techniques, the drudgery of practice, the importance of teammates and rivals, and so much more. And they offer a nice segueway into the meat of the story in each chapter.

Doyle is very definitely a thoughtful and philosophical character and you can feel his real angst and sadness at the thought of retiring. But he's also occasionally so single-mindedly focused that he abuses or discounts the care and friendship so long offered him without recompense. As frustrating as his blindness can be, he is an eminently sympathetic character and the reader wants very much for him to succeed. I had to put the book down and let my heart rate recover and my swirling thoughts untangle before I could pick the book up and finish it after reading about his final race. Stephenson has definitely nailed the swimming world aspect of the novel 100% and his explanations geared toward making that world accessible to the non-swimmer are well done. The characters are occasionally a little stiff and their conversations, especially in the beginning of the book, are somewhat stilted but the flow does get more natural as the story takes over. It goes without saying that swimmers and coaches will find much to relate to in these pages but for anyone, swimmer or no, who enjoyed the adreneline-filled swimming events of the recent Olympics, this book will let you hear the cheers again and will give you a little insight into what comes next when the lane-lines are put away, pool is still, and the lights are extinguished.

Cover copyright 2012 Ginny Glass and Untreed Reads Publishing. Thanks to the publisher and Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. This sounds like a complex, flawed and interesting character. Excellent review!

  2. You make it sound pretty compelling, which is not something I ever thought us say about a book about competitive swimming!


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