Coming Up for Air tells the story of pre-Olympic swimmer Maggie as she struggles to find her pace both in the pool and in the bedroom. Consumed by swim practice and homework, Maggie has never had time for a social life, and definitely not for boys. That is, until she makes a no-ties pact with her best friend, Levi, in exchange for him teaching her how to hook up.
The sports plot not only adds thrilling tension to the novel, but mirrors Maggie’s emotional arc as well. Maggie constantly feels behind in swimming, as she has yet to qualify for Olympic tryouts. Similarly, she’s convinced everyone at her high school has more “hook-up” experience than her. In order to amend what the considers to be her shortcomings, Maggie pushes to swim faster (despite her coach’s warnings about perseverance) and explores her sexuality through a no-strings-attached experiment with her best friend.
But Maggie must learn to accept her own pace in swimming and in love. She comes to discover that she is better at the 400 meter than the 200 because of her duration skills and that she is better at freestyle than backstroke. Similarly, she learns that she prefers feelings and trust to hook-ups, even though she feels pressure to do the latter. And just like she must accept the change in her swimming style, she learns to understand the shift from friendship to love with Levi.
The novel earns major bonus-points for the sex-positive message that accompanies Maggie’s story. Maggie feels judged at times for her choices, but says “it’s my body, my life, my needs. And I’ve been happy.” Kenneally shows readers that it’s okay to not know the outcome, or have your entire future planned out. It’s okay to live in the moment if the moment makes you happy.
Coming up for Air also encourages girls to be open about their sexuality. Maggie is awkwardly honest about her “urges,” and at one point Kenneally writes “it seems guys can do whatever they want sexually…but girls have every right to experiment, too,” calling out the double-standard when it comes to sexual exploration.
The novel also promotes safe sex. Not only is Maggie certain to use a condom (resulting in a hilariously terrible run-in with her father at the super market) but her partner, Levi, ensures her that he’s clean before they consummate their relationship.
And this review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my love for Coach Josh. Not only is he Maggie’s #1 ally, but his awkward rants about “swimcest” are laugh-out-loud great.