Sophie Green – The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle

Hachette, Australia, 2020

Following the huge success of The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club (2017), Sophie Green brings us another story of female friendship. Four women of diverse ages and backgrounds and each with her own private demons and challenges, bond through a daily morning ocean swim.

Barbie talks to Sophie Green about The Shelly Bayt Ladies Swimming Circle

Sophie Green demonstrates a great capacity to engender sympathy and empathy in the reader for her characters. She is never maudlin and yet reveals the struggles and strengths of each of the women in this story, their lows and their triumphs. One cannot help but feel that Sophie herself must be a good friend to others, understanding as she does the need for both closeness and distance at certain times.

Elaine is an Englishwoman separated not just from her children, but from her birth home and her sense of self in the successful business she ran. She’s moved to the home of her husband and feels like a fish out of water, both personally and socially. Australia is a strange, lonely place and she finds solace in regular bottles of gin. The swimming circle provides her with a daily discipline, a new group of friends and ultimately the support she needs to speak the truth about herself.

Teresa is a young mother with two children and an unappreciative, demanding, straying husband. She is a prisoner to her home in many ways, overburdened with childcare, domestic duties and the care of her aged nonna. The morning swim is a precious escape and time to be herself while also improving her physical fitness. The friendship of the three women in the circle also gives her strength to stand up for herself and acknowledge her own worth.

Leanne is young and single, working in a nursing capacity with extremely sick children. She has suffered a traumatic abuse as a younger woman and has very much retreated from relationships and social life. She takes swimming lessons in the local pool and then steals herself to begin surf swimming. This act of courage foreshadows many others for her, and the support and friendship of the women helps her to find the strength to rediscover herself and her family.

Marie is the matriarch of the group, the one who has long been swimming in the sea. She’s widowed, her best friend has moved away to a retirement village and she is very much drifting. The insertion of the three other women to her daily ritual, along with the appearance of a late-life beau, transforms her world and brings joy and comfort she had not expected to feel again. She’s not an advice giver but she is a stalwart friend and makes sure that everyone in the quartet knows they have the support of the others in whatever capacity they need it.

All of this could be formulaic and trite, couldn’t it? But it isn’t. Sophie Green is a skilful weaver of story and her care to explore each woman as a whole person ensures the reader of  a rich experience.

The men in this story cover the gamut: the sexist, racist, strutting Trevor in his budgie smugglers meets the wall of female strength and intelligence; the disrespectful, self-indulgent behaviour of Teresa’s husband Andrew will probably not change but he is nevertheless eventually forced to bow to Marie’s wisdom; the man who damaged Leanne will probably not be held to account but she can overcome this and restore her dignity within the family through love; Elaine’s apparently somewhat oblivious husband James does show that he’s been aware and is willing to do whatever is needed to improve things – he loves her; Marie’s new love life Gus is a gem from the beginning showing gentle kindness and practical manifestations of love; Father Paul also shows kindness and perspicacity.

Take this book to the beach this summer, if Covid allows, or put it in your holiday reading basket. It’s a comfort read but not one which is always in entirely comfortable territory. It is a well observed, affectionate, insightful  commentary on the lives and strengths of women – the story is set in the eighties but how much has changed?

Thank you to Hachette for sending me a review copy.