Nicki Burton was born in England and, as a baby, presented to the local parish for adoption. She grew up with loving parents who emigrated to America and had no reason to feel any sense of discontent about her life. And yet...
It seems an adopted child who is aware of the adoption nearly always wants to know more about the birth family. Some are satisfied with whatever information their adoptive parents supply, but others, like Nicki - educated, a playwright - are driven by a nagging desire to ferret out more facts, clues about themselves that can only come from contact or connection with the people who gave them life. Nicki writes, "I had always wanted to know my birth parents. I'd felt them calling through the years of childhood...I couldn't stand not knowing anymore."
Her saga has surprising twists and turns; she went to England many times to trace her parents. At first it seemed finding her mother would be the easiest, but she encountered curious resistance from some of the people officially involved, along with lost records and other minor challenges. She met her father first and discovered he was Jewish. Bemused and intrigued by her determination to learn the truth about a chance relationship he had had in his youth, he quickly sided with and promoted Nicki in her longing for information, kindly taking her under his wing, albeit in a gingerly, English sort of way.
Nicki knew that her mother had been an art student, knew her name, but that was little to go on. By persistence she found finally Eve, who insisted on meeting her in a public place, a meeting that turned out to be brief, alluring and discouraging. Eve frankly told Nicki that when she was born, "You didn't look a bit like me. I remember thinking, there lies a perfect stranger." And yet...every year on the birthday of the daughter she never raised, never knew, and despite the fact that she had
three other daughters (one born outside of wedlock, the other two to a man who graciously adopted her second child), Eve had always commemorated the date. And Nicki had always been thinking of her birth mother on every birthday. So,
although Eve was stand-offish at the initial grown-up meeting, Nicki had reason to hope that they might slowly develop a relationship.
That relationship did not materialize in the way Nicki wished. But in compensation, Nicki met her half-sisters and found much commonality with them. All are dynamic, personable and artistic, able to bond in a way that, to the reader, makes sense. They are all daughters of a flibberty-gibbet mother, one who gave love and retracted it by turns, and all are, fortunately, comfortably middle-class, educated and, probably because of their mother's unconventional lifestyle, creative and interesting people. In an odd, circuitous way, the four children of Eve became a family, with Eve always standing apart from them all. One barrier to Nicki's further intimacy with her mother was Eve's fear of telling her husband about her youthful fling and its result. And yet...she sent gifts, out of the blue, sometimes after months or years with no word at all. Never predictable, never much closer than at her initial encounter with her oldest child, so that by the end of the book all the daughters wish that Eve could have been described more kindly...and yet...
One suspects that this story is "typical" - considering that no such story can be other than unique. It well expresses the self-doubt and pain of trying to get to know someone whom you should know so well but who has rejected you long ago. There is much to forgive and much to build on. The attempt is encapsulated in the title, an English expression that describes a kind of determined optimism: "swimming up the sun."