Bliss, Remembered by Frank Deford is the story of a mother with her own story to tell, and the son who patiently gives her time to tell it. Despite the fact that the author is also a sportswriter, this is not a book filled with sports action. The tale takes its time in the telling, allowing the reader to savor the language and the memories.
Sydney Stringfellow Branch, dying of cancer in 2004, invites her son to come watch the Athens Olympics with her. When he arrives, she reveals that she wants to tell him about her own trip to the Olympics, as a swimmer, in 1936. Throughout his 60 years, she has never talked to her son about this life-changing experience. The story of how she ended up in Berlin, Germany as a member of the United States Olympic team is revealed very slowly over the course of the novel.
The story flips back and forth between the 1930s and 2004. We hear the voice of Sydney and the voice of her son, Teddy. Real life figures such as Eleanor Holm (who won the 100-meter backstroke at the 1932 Olympics), Leni Riefenstahl (who documented the Olympics for Hitler) and Adolf Hitler make appearances throughout the tale. However, this story is not what one might expect from a novel written by a sportswriter about the 1936 Olympics. The focus is not on Hitler or World War II, and Jesse Owens is only briefly mentioned. The story is not depressing or horrific like so many books about the time period.
Before starting her story, Sydney intrigues her son and the reader by warning us to prepare ourselves: “There’s some sex…. Some violence, too.” But it’s a long way into the story before we hear the full details. Teddy also learns more about the deceased father who, like his mother, had a subject he refused to discuss with his son – the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.
Bliss, Remembered is a well-researched book. The details about the eastern shore of Maryland and New York in the early 1930s and the Berlin Olympics in 1936 ring true, as does the language used in the present and the past. Deford works in references to real people, places, and events in a believable way.
Bliss, Remembered contains some plot twists that knock at the door of incredulity but don’t quite open it because the author successfully pulls us in. The story is so beautifully told that you just follow along.
Frank Deford is a fine, nuanced writer. If you like a book with secrets to reveal in its own sweet time, I recommend Bliss, Remembered.