Not a ‘Swell’ read

Jill Eisenstadt’s latest novel aims high but gets muddled somewhere in the middle.

A SEEMINGLY haunted house in Queens is the setting for this jumbled, confusing novel (photo credit: SUSAN JOUFLAS/TNS)
A SEEMINGLY haunted house in Queens is the setting for this jumbled, confusing novel
(photo credit: SUSAN JOUFLAS/TNS)
As all waves in life go, what goes up must come down, and such is the case with Jill Eisenstadt’s novel Swell.
What starts off as an intriguing tale of murder, a few crazy characters and a bizarre love story, ends in chaotic confusion and cliffhangers with no sequel in sight. Which is not my idea of a good read. Several times I was forced to put the book down, unsure of whether I would continue.
The story line on the novel’s inside book-cover flap is what initially hooked me, and it’s a pity that what I initially thought would be a fresh and different story didn’t pan out.
So, what, you may ask, is the synopsis of this tragic tale?
When Sue Glassman’s family finds itself in desperate need of a new and spacious home in the aftermath of September 11, the protagonist – after years of resisting – finally converts to Judaism, her husband’s religion. As her “reward,” Sue’s father-in-law, Sy, buys the family – Sue, Dan, and their two relatively obnoxious daughters – a large but haunted beachfront property in Rockaway, Queens. And Sy decides he’s moving in too.
While celebrating Sue’s “conversion party,” the 92-yearold former owner of the home, Rose, who had “accidentally” murdered the son who had hoped to inherit the house after his mother’s death, arrives adamant to move back into her former residence, having escaped an assisted living facility in Forest Hills.
Then there’s their bizarre neighbor Tim, a former lifeguard, former firefighter and former alcoholic who has an inexplicable need to protect the Glassman family and make several random appearances throughout the novel.
Don’t get me wrong, the book isn’t all bad and does have some positive aspects. They were few and far between, but there were several darkly humorous moments along the way while discovering the stories behind the strange characters. However, it was hard at times to connect with the eccentricity of the characters or to find anything relatable to them, which is an important aspect for the reader.
Nonetheless, at times when I began to lose hope as things went downhill from the second half of the novel, there were interesting plot twists that did encourage me to keep going.
As the slow plot-line unfolds, readers watch the family, left totally unbalanced following Rose’s sudden and unwanted arrival, deal with the daily struggles of life after 9/11. The family’s efforts to move on after the national tragedy was another aspect of the novel that kept me reading until the end, despite my continued doubts.
For a story that takes place over two days (from June 14 to June 16, 2002) the book is incredibly long-winded. Having had so many different events take place over a single weekend felt unrealistic. It felt more like two months, which is perhaps the time frame that should have been given. When you reach the last chapter and it is dated June 16, you’re left with a confused and unsure feeling of how so much could have happened in such a short period of time.
What should have been an excellent and funny novel turned out to be broken, boring and in many ways a mess. Eisenstadt tried too hard to make the novel layered and colorful, destroying any potential it had to offer something relatable to its readers in the process. This could have been something beautiful. Despite much of the critical acclaim the novel received, as an amateur book-lover, this story was a real disappointment.