The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams

Do you ever read a book where you finish it and you’re like, Hm, I think I may be deeply stupid?  I sort of felt that way when I finished reading A Pale View of Hills, but with that one, at least, I thought about it for a while and came to a conclusion.  I have been thinking furiously about The Girl in a Swing, ever since I finished it yesterday morning, and I am still trying to figure out what the hell happened.

I was excited to read this book.  I love Watership Down like crazy, and The Girl in a Swing is about a porcelain shop owner called Alan who is slightly psychic.  While in Copenhagen on business, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful sensual German woman called Kathe.  After a whirlwind romance, they are married and live happily ever after.  Except that Richard gradually begins to realize there is Something Not Right and actually they don’t live all that happily ever after, so I was lying about that before.  And did I mention it’s by the same guy that wrote Watership Down?

Psychic dude!  Something Not Right!  Watership Down author!  I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED.

I also felt stupid, as previously stated.  I feel like I understood the main thing that was causing spookiness – major spoilers in this paragraph only! – of how Kathe had a child and went into the woods and killed her dead so she could be with Alan.  I got that.  All clear on that.

Then there was all this stuff throughout the book about sex and Christianity and pagan goddesses and forgiveness that were confusing, and I think there may have been layers of meaning that I didn’t get.  Because of being stupid.  And maybe they would have made the book better.  Like, the porcelain thing that Kathe gets, the Girl in a Swing?  What was up with that?  Did that relate to the theme of forgiving yourself?  What all did I miss by being stupid?  And, well, okay, by being bored and my mind drifting away.

Yes!  Okay?  I was bored with this book!  It just took so long to get going; and if it hadn’t been Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, I’d have given up in despair. Occasionally there were strange little episodes with Kathe, but they were few and far between for most of the book.  Same with Alan, who was supposed to be psychic, but he hardly ever was – I wanted more out of Alan!  When Kathe wasn’t having fits at the sight of a church and shrieking at Alan to destroy the past and save her (i.e., most of the time), she and Alan were so sweety-sweet you just couldn’t stand it.  They were constantly going, Oo, darling, how clever and beautiful you are, and oo, darling, how quickly you do seem to have learnt everything about my porcelain business, and darling, isn’t it nice for us that everyone you know adores me, and darling, let’s have sex all the time like bunny rabbits.

Which, you know, is funny.  Considering.

I am so cross at being disappointed by a book I really wanted to enjoy that I officially say, Do not read this!  It’s a waste of time.  Read something good and thrilling and suspenseful like Watership Down.  In fact I am so cross, I am not even going to count this as part of the RIP Challenge.

  • Well, hell. I’m sorely disappointed by this as well. I was hoping this book would make it onto my TBR list, but definitely not now! Thank you for saving me some time. Too many books…so little time! BUT… I am adding Watership Down:)

    • I am going to be so excited if you read Watership Down, seriously. You have no idea. I am constantly trying to get people to read it, and usually they make sneery face at me because it’s about a psychic rabbit. BUT IT IS SO GOOD.

  • Gah! I hate it when that happens.

    Have you read Tales from Watership Down? Not as good as Watership Down, but still good!

    • I haven’t – this was my first foray into Richard Adams’s other books. I have been thinking of trying Shardik for a while, as I heard he thought it was his best book. (Though authors are often wrong about which book is their best, it seems to me.) I’m probably going to read Watership Down again, and after that I will try Tales from Watership Down . As I will be in deep withdrawal. 😛

  • Mum

    Well, at least it had the bunny theme going.

    I don’t think it was you. The book was not exactly a bestseller.

    • I guess so. I wanted to love it. Why does Richard Adams disappoint me in this fashion?

  • I’m so glad for the warning. I love Watership Down so much I must have read it five or six times in my life. Shardik I could not finish. The beginning was way too slow. (Someday I’ll do a post about that) And searching for something that echoes the brilliance of Watership Down, I picked up The Girl in a Swing several times, but the plot just did not sound interesting to me.

    However, The Plague Dogs was really good! Not as fantastic as Watership Down, but good in its own way.

    • Darn it! Shardik not good either? *sigh* My pool of books just gets smaller & smaller. (Hahaha, that’s a total lie, I have a massive pool of books, it’s disgraceful.) But I will get The Plague Dogs. Thanks for the recommendation – I was going to get Shardik next, and if it’s as slow as you say I might have sworn off Richard Adams-apart-from-Watership-Down forever!

  • Sounds like it was terribly confusing! I’ve never read Watership Down but I’ve watched the television series when I was younger.

    And isn’t it nice to get all that reader angst out of your system? That’s what blogs are for- So you can break a novel down bit by bit and rave about how horrible or great it can be! I still remember reading your review of Twilight (which is, by the way, how I came to find your blog =)) and totally agreeing with you, and being happy that someone else could so intelligenly explain what it was about this book that I didn’t like!

    • Hahaha, yes, you are right. I don’t think I often get really really cranky with books, but when I am it’s nice to be able to vent. (I try not to do it too much though! I don’t want to be all curmudgeonly about my books!)

      You should seriously very much indeed read Watership Down. It is so good. I don’t know about the television series, but the book is amazing. The rabbits are so resourceful and British – it’s all, “Well, old chap, I dare say we won’t get very far if we don’t [do something rabbitty]”. 🙂

      • Just wondering – have you read any of Brian Jacques Redwall books? I loved the colonel rabbits in his books.

        • Sharry – I never did – my big sister was really really into them, and I am willing to entertain the possibility that I rejected them because she liked them so much. 😛

  • How disappointing! I loved Watership Down! I remember clearly lying face down on the couch sobbing my guts out. You’ve gotta love a book like that! I don’t blame you for being cross!!!!!

    • Watership Down was such an unexpected pleasure when I read it for the first time! And this one was unexpectedly unfun – which I guess is just the way it goes. It’s just, Watership Down had this incredible pacing – each episode was so fraught with peril – and I was expecting more tension in Adams’s other books. Hmph.

  • Hmm – I seem to remember either trying this one and not making it through, or making it through and feeling completely baffled. It was ages ago, but just so you know – you are not alone! Sorry to hear about your disappointing read. I loved Watership Down, too!

    • Oh, phew! Because I read a couple of reviews of it that were all, oh the layers of meaning, it’s so rich and complex, and I really felt like I had been a stupid reader. 😛

  • Yes I have thought just the same thing about certain books. Sorry this was a disappointment.

    • I am still not sure if I am dumb, or the book too obtuse. Which makes me extra angry actually! Grrrrrrrrr.

  • Well, I will go add Watership Down to the list. I’ve been intrigued by it for years but now that it’s easy to keep track of these tbr wishes, I’ll do so. Thx!

    • Yaaaaay! I want everyone to read Watership Down all the time! (I mean, not all the time. But everyone should read it sometime!) I mean if you can manage to write a stories about rabbits that is tense and engaging and terrifying, you have to be doing something right. Plus, he has quotations at the start of each chapter, which I love – that’s actually where my mother first heard about Mary Renault, one of my favorite historical fiction writers. So.

  • What’s worse than reading a bad book? Reading a bad book by an author who’s other works you’ve really enjoyed. Just when you think you can trust them, they go and do something like this. It makes the disappointment sting all that much more.

    Sorry to hear you didn’t like this one, but all The Watership Down talk is making me even more excited to read it!

    • It’s so true. Though I imagine it’s worse for them – imagine if you had written Watership Down as your first book, and it was incredibly successful and popular. And where do you go from there? Eek, wouldn’t want to be under all that pressure.

  • Schatzi

    You should read The Plague Dogs soon. I threw my copy across the room the first time I tried reading because I was so upset (but we’ve seen how volatile I can be), but it really is really, really good.

    • I’ll get it out of the library the first time I read it. That way if I have to throw it across the room, I’ll be sort of a bad person, but I won’t have damaged my copy. 😛

  • Oh, dear.

    I have a copy checked out from the library sitting on my dining room table at home, waiting to be read. I got it for the same reasons you did (spooky-sounding story, Richard Adams) but now I’m wondering if I should taint my love of Watership Down by even attempting to read Girl in a Swing!

    Hmmm … a worrisome dilemma.

    • Well, it didn’t taint my love for Watership Down , but it was long, and a bit boring, and I do feel like it was a waste of valuable reading time. I have all these thrilling-looking books out of the library, and I spent my time reading something dull. Hmph.

  • Rebecca

    This was a great book, actually. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it … It is rich and there is much to discuss.

    • I think it’s probably a better book for people who don’t mind plots that move slowly. I get impatient with those books and want something else to happen – glad you enjoyed it though!

  • TT

    I just came across your blog. I’m always fascinated by other people’s opinion of The Girl in the Swing.

    I remember having the same reaction as you when I first read it. I read Watership Down when I was very young and devoured it thinking it was one of the best novels of all time.

    I was only in junior high when I then went straight to reading The Girl in the Swing instead of Shardik. After finishing it, I didn’t know what to think. It was a ghost story and tragedy filled with sadness. It was absolutely nothing like Watership Down. I didn’t like it.

    Now, that I’m much older. I’ve read it again and things that made no sense to me makes alot of sense. Going through college and being almost married; all those life events and learning informed the imagery in the novel.

    It’s not Watership Down. In fact, I think Adams is a great writer by being able to write both Watership Down and The Girl in the Swing. The novel is about loss and love and the consequences of desire. It still haunts me to this day. Give it another chance when you are more removed from Watership Down. The best way I can describe it is The Girl in the Swing is more akin to Sophie’s Choice. Or a John Irving novel.

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  • Meara

    Give it a go. For me it is one of my favourite of his books. I have read it many times and still not disappointed. There are many layers. My only confusion is that I cannot understand what comes out of the sea at the end.

  • Anne-Kit

    I’m sorry you didn’t like it, it’s one of my absolute favourite books and one of the few I take out and re-read periodically. If it helps, it’s better the second (and subsequent) time you read it as you can follow the literary quotes and subtle hints and references much better knowing the full story.

    Adams does get carried away a bit showing off with literary quotes, I admit, and to some extent I agree with you that it can get a bit saccharine with all the sweetness between Alan and Karin (not Kathe!). However I think the story is big enough to override that. I agree also with a previous commenter that if you read it later in life (and I don’t know how old you are, Jenny) when you have more life experience – and a “Grand Passion” perhaps? – it will resonate with you in a different way.

    I like the slow build-up very much, but that’s just me 🙂 It was filmed in 1988 with Meg Tilly and Rupert Frazier apparently but never made it to DVD. I didn’t see the movie.

    • I felt crazy for a minute there over the name — I may not have been the best reader of this book, but I didn’t think I’d been so bad as not to notice the girl’s name! My library must have had an early edition. The girl’s name was originally Kathe Geutner (says Wikipedia), but then a real live girl named Kathe Geutner sued, and they changed it to Karin. I am not a crackpot. :p

      I’ll bear in mind what you’ve said. I was so disappointed with this book after wanting it to be good that I’m definitely open to the possibility that it just caught me at the wrong time in my life. I’ll try it again another time and see if it’s any better.

      • Missy Holland

        I have a second edition as well. And it IS Kathe!

  • meemee

    The book has more meaning the more you read it. I just read it for the 3rd time and it is all crystal clear! …except for why did Mrs. Taswell disappear? At first I thought she stole the Girl on a Swing figuerine & ran off with it but then we learn that she didn’t.

  • I figured that Kathe? had killed her daughter, since early on, Alan had mentioned that he would not be h appy about taking on a child from a previous relationship. I suspect the thing that arose from the sea at the end was the decomposed body of Kathe,s daughter as she had seen it in the Florida river

  • Irgendwie

    I first watched the video when it first came out; that was when I was about 20. I had to watch it over a few times back then to figure out what it was about. Now that I am over twice the age that I was then, I finally got around to reading the book and I really loved it. The only bad part was that I already knew the basic story so it diminished the suspense, but otherwise it was great. Beautiful and sad. The movie/video could have been much better, but Meg Tilly was pretty awesome as Karin/Kaethe; her acting/impression was what kept me mesmerized with the story all these years.

  • Hugh

    Girl in a swing is a brilliant book and one I have read twice. Some people don’t understand—going by their comments.

  • Oh, I thought she had murdered the kid previous to meeting Alan, and was haunted by it. This is why she married him and fled the continent. You’re right that porcelain and antiques are a boring subject, but I think you’re wrong anyway.

  • Susan

    I actually LOVED this book. It is one of my favorites! It is really a very creepy ghost story, which you don’t realize until the end! There is an initial scene and talk of Allan’s mild psychic ability but then it is forgotten in the love story, until towards the end you realize it is not a love story but a haunting. I read this book then thought, what the hell just happened? Then I reread it and there is all was, the clues, the foreshadowing, just so well done it totally, absolutely took me by complete surprise!

  • Liz

    Great review of G on a Swing. I was also mystified by the ending and wondered had I missed a big chunk somewhere. I understood it okay and then at the end it seemed to go haywire. So had a look on line to try and find another view and found your very reassuring review. Thanks for posting.

  • Dana

    ok, here’s the thing. i’ve heard this multiple times from folks re this book of adams. the classics used to permeate the fabric of culture and society but no longer. greek myths and ethos are not part and parcel of our collective consciousness anymore and certainly as it was in adams’ time or milieu. kathe is a manifestation of the goddess aphrodite and this proves too much for her mortal side; all the greek references both overt and very subtle (“you were foam-born in Paphos, etc”) revolve around this; which adams is careful never to state directly. the book is much too subtle to dream of giving this to the reader head on. if that central point is missed, i can easily see how tedious and pointless everything else would seem to the reader.

  • LFM

    Sigh. I’m such a late-comer here, although I’ve been looking for “Girl In a Swing” commentary ever since the internet took off, to see if anyone else saw what I saw. Very few have, so I’ll start.

    Here goes: Alan is an art-nerd. He doesn’t love human beings much, or at all. That’s why his love of porcelain, music, etc. is such an important element in this story; these traits indicate that he isn’t moved by the usual human emotional ties. His attitude towards most women is apparent in the way he rejects girls like the Danish Kirsten who assists in the Greek plays he attends (too plain), and the English rose Barbara (too demanding). It also shows in the his dismissal of the girls whose clothes he admires but whose wearers are too vulgar or ordinary to satisfy his fastidious tastes.

    But then on a trip to Cophenhagen, he meets Kathe, a beautiful young woman who evokes in him a series of allegorical images in response – panther, Persian cat, Aphrodite, etc. However, he doesn’t take the trouble to know her well, or at all. He ignores all the warning signals he gets from her in their various encounters. In fact, his ability to dismiss her hints about her previous life is almost comical. On one of their evenings out in Copenhagen, he is ludicrously deaf/blind to her evasions. From these things – Alan’s wish to make Kathe into a non-human goddess, and his tendency to ignore her hints – their tragedy develops.

    Kathe, although Alan may see her as a goddess in his psychic visions, is only human, a fact which he refuses to accept. She is not a piece of porcelain; she does not represent a Greek goddess figure, however sexually skilled she might be. (Did she acquire this skill, perhaps, from working as a prostitute? Adams doesn’t quite say, but he hints it.) She is a real woman with a history that Alan the fastidious might find distasteful, which is why she does not try to tell him about it.

    Alan understands none of this. He continues to think of his new wife as a goddess/princess, too good for him. He refuses to let her tell him about herself, and admits that this is only out of jealousy; he doesn’t WANT to know her life story. But if he doesn’t understand it, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know. His “psychic gift” is just powerful enough to tell him things he doesn’t want to know. And so the story winds towards its denouement.

    The Christianity in the story is important in that Alan is only acquainted with a very anodyne version of it, through his friend Tony. He realises, as he tries to defend his wife, that Tony’s “liberal” Christianity, which only forgives sins that it doesn’t think are real sins, can’t find a way to forgive the sins of a woman who has actually done something really wrong, even if her reasons for doing so were understandable. Tony can’t help; only “I am the Resurrection and the Life” Christianity is able to heal Alan.