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Nicola Keegan’s debut is a literary coming-of age novel that tells the story of young Philomena, nicknamed “Pip.” When we first meet Pip, she is an energetic nine-month-old, born in the 1960s, who wows her parents and spectators at the local pool with her natural aquatic abilities. Even as a child, Pip’s inner monologue is wry and sharp.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Pip is the second of four daughters born to a very Catholic family living in Kansas. Her father, Leonard, is a scientist who studies bats, as well as being an amateur pilot. Her mother is a remote but loving woman. Her oldest sister, Bron, is a brooding and sullen teen. Roxanne becomes the burn-out, experimental sister, while the youngest, Dot, becomes the pious and cautious one. Bron develops Huntington’s disease, and her illness and treatment take a toll on the family. Just when it seems like she turns a corner, Bron dies and the family is left reeling. Leonard, who is so used to scientific formulas that make perfect sense, cannot get his brain around his grief. His wife retreats from them all. When the family is dealt another sucker punch, each remaining member struggles to find their own way to deal with the pain of their loss.

On the advice of a nun, Pip throws herself into her swimming. Something that used to be a relaxing hobby has now become her lifeblood --- her raison d’etre. It beats sitting at home, obsessing over the fact that she has yet to start her period; and her mother, who normally would be counseling her on such matters, has taken to her bed, consumed with grief. Pip starts competing on the local high school team, where she sweeps the regionals and is spotted by a scout for a famed Olympic coach. She is then invited to attend a training school in Colorado, where she will live with a local family while attending classes and extensive, exhausting training sessions with numerous instructors, all under the watchful eye of Ernest K. Mankovitz, the esteemed Olympic swimming coach.

Because swimming has become her life, Pip has learned to focus on very specific goals at such a young age, and certain other social norms and rites of passage have fallen away. She realizes that she knows how to win the 200-meter, but has no clue how to talk to a boy or navigate the world outside of competitive swimming. Sure, she has surpassed even her family’s modest dreams for her, but at what cost? Was it all worth it?

Keegan’s writing is beautiful, often stream-of-consciousness, and smart. The pall of tragedy hangs heavy over the first half of the book, but through Pip’s wry observations of the world, the author manages to sneak a little levity in. But for all her bluster, Pip is not an insolent misanthrope; she’s a stunted young girl, forever on the outside looking in: “I should be happy, but am not. My happiness is dancing with something in a black suit I don’t want to identify. They’re turning fast --- bright, black, bright, black, my mind turning with them. I do not know what kind of creature I am. The deep fatigue of continuously being girl combined with the great width of an open future, the narrowness of individual fate…and the infinite immeasurableness of the human mind is making me shaky and bewildered and tired to the marrow of my bones.” Pip is like a female Holden Caulfield, pointing out the ridiculous aspects of life, but secretly harboring a deep sadness about not being more entrenched in it.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 23, 2011

by Nicola Keegan

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307454614
  • ISBN-13: 9780307454614