I have loved swimming since I was a kid, but with my mother afraid of the water, I didn’t get to swim a lot as a child. When I was 7 or 8, she enrolled me in swimming lessons when we lived in Okinawa and nearly had a heart attack every time she watched me swim. Once we got back to the states, she enrolled me and my brother in the YMCA determined that we would not grow up afraid of the water. It was some years later when I went for a group swim that I met him, the lifeguard. And I fell for him, hard. He was an all-American boy, blond hair with blue eyes, captain of his school swim team and perfect, at least to me. It was perhaps because of him that I, myself, enrolled in a lifesaving course and got my certification. As a teen, I would fill in at times, for my friend who was also certified at the same time I was. Later, in college, I worked as a lifeguard at the campus pool as part of my financial aid. I grew up at the Jersey shore and spent my summers on the beach. Perhaps that’s why I felt I could identify with the characters in The Lifeguard by Deborah Blumenthal. It’s a perfect summer read, but not at all what you might think.
Sirena struggles with her parents divorce while she's stuck at her Aunt Ellie's house in Rhode Island. There she is saved by a lifeguard who she becomes focused on. She tries to get his attention but he keeps turning away. The mystery surrounding this lifeguard only pushes Sirena to dig further.
As I was headed to Burlington, Vermont for vacation, I thought bringing The Lifeguard would be the perfect light hearted summer read. It is a perfect summer read, but it is anything but light hearted.
Sirena is being shipped off to her Aunt Ellie’s house for the summer because her parents back in Texas are going through a divorce and they figured she would be better off away from all the troubles. She spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity and feeling sorry for herself. Like no one has ever gone through this before. I went through it, but I was younger, so maybe that was the difference. While I was just accepting of the situation, Sirena is anything but accepting. She seems to spend a lot of time in her head moping about things she can’t change and only seeing the situation as it affects her life and doesn’t seem to think about what her parents must be going through.
She does meet a cast of characters which do not seem very well developed for the most part, but as I said, the book seems to take place a lot in her head. Her Aunt Ellie is flushed out a bit. She is quirky and marches to the beat of her own drum. She is well-travelled and seems to be very much a free spirit. I liked her immediately.
She fixes up the attic room which looks out towards the beach with a big bay window. It is a beautiful little room with one major set back. On stormy days / nights, there is a ghost that visits Sirena and moans pitiably.
The plot really gets underway when Sirena goes for a jog on the beach barefooted and collides with the lifeguard who was getting her out of the way of a sea urchin. She doesn’t realize he was saving her from it, until he jogs away from her and she sees Lifeguard on the back of his shirt. It takes about half the book for her to even find out his name, but she becomes obsessed with him immediately. He is godlike in his perfection. Embarrassed by her encounter with him, she refuses to go to the beach and just mopes around the house.
Aunt Ellie finally has enough of her self-pity and sends her to volunteer at the local hospital where Siren encounters the lifeguard again. He moonlights as an EMT. She stalks him through the hospital and out of the building where he gets on his motor cycle, but he is stopped by a beautiful blond girl calling out his name, Pilot, before he can drive away. She hops on his bike and they drive away. Sirena has a name to go with the face, but assumes the blond is his girlfriend and feels her heart breaking.
Because Sirena likes to paint, Aunt Ellie gives her an old used easel when she moves in that she can use over the summer. She also tells Sirena about a friend of hers named Antonio who is a retired fisherman. He spends most of his time painting on the beach. She meets him on one of her beach walks and and they strike up a friendship.
She finds his gallery in town and she goes in to take a look around. On the wall, she finds a painting of Pilot and before she can rationalize or talk herself out of it, she steals the painting from the gallery as there is no one watching the gallery.
Riddled with guilt over the theft of the painting, Sirena spends more time in her head agonizing over her actions. She finally tells Antonio that she stole his painting. He seems angry at first, but then laughs thanking her. If she loves his painting enough to steal it, that is the ultimate compliment. So, he gives her the painting.
Sirena is determined to make Pilot hers, so she strategizes on how best to accomplish it. She buys a new bikini and heads to the beach. She sees him, but she also sees the blond girl on the blanket next to his lifeguard chair and he is talking to her. Sirena, in an effort to stake her claim, walks right up to him, but he gives her the cold shoulder. She’s humiliated.
He seems to run hot and cold with Sirena, so she makes a move on Pilot which he seems to reciprocate, but then he pushes her away informing her that it would never work between them.
When swimming is banned due to strong riptides, Sirena decides she is going to cool off by just splashing in the water. She waits until Pilot leaves his chair and walks the other way. She goes down by the peer, but loses her footing and is dragged under. She tries to drag herself out of the water, but just as she thinks she’s made it, she steps on something that rears up and she feels an intense pain in her leg and sees blood then remembers nothing.
When she comes to, she realizes she may lose more than her happy home back in Texas.
Pilot is enigmatic and gives very little of himself. He keeps himself apart from everyone and in turn has become the guardian of everyone. He shows little emotion or weakness and is on site whenever anyone needs help. Strange things seem to happen when he is around which only adds further to the mystery that he is.
Antonio also becomes an important character. He becomes Sirena's mentor, confidant and friend. He does open up to her somewhat about where he came from and his background. His father was a shaman in Brazil as his father before him and so on. While Antonio does admit to learning from his father, he never comes out and admits he is also a shaman. He does seem to have some sort of power, though.
As the story enfolds, we learn more about Pilot and Antonio and their relationship to each other and the house Aunt Ellie bought. And who is the blond that seems to be intimate with Pilot? His girlfriend? We also learn more about the connection between Pilot, Antonio and Sirena.
I was expecting a light hearted romp about hanging out on the beach and crushing on the lifeguard, but what I got instead was a book with a mystery, life and death, love and loss and a little bit of the paranormal. I would recommend this to anyone interested in a good beach read that is not just fluff.