It’s hard to believe that someone who graduated from Yale Law School and landed a prestigious fellowship with the New York City Public Defender’s Office could think her accomplishments amount to “nada,” but when we meet Sophie Hegel at the beginning of author Tonya Plank’s debut novel, Swallow, Sophie is experiencing serious self-confidence issues.
Originally from a small town in Arizona, she’s not found it easy transitioning to the fast paced world of NYC. It doesn’t help that her boyfriend, an attorney at a prestigious law firm, works insane hours and the only socializing they do seems to bring her into contact with a crowd of upscale attorneys from generations deep ivy league pedigrees… which only makes her feel more insecure.
Things seem to be looking up when her boyfriend proposes to her at dinner one evening, except that she suddenly gets the sensation that she has a lump in her throat and finds it nearly impossible to swallow. Not only does the sensation not go away, it gets progressively worse and her inability to eat anything substantial causes her to lose such an alarming amount of weight that her friends and family think she has an eating disorder. Though she doesn’t, she does realize that she needs help, and thus begins her search for the cause of her condition.
Despite that rather dire sounding set-up, Swallow is actually a very engaging, darkly humorous read. Sophie’s attempts to find the answer to her problem in the medical world, first with a physician then a psychologist, are fertile ground for misadventure. She’s also surrounded by an extremely colorful cast of supporting characters: the fashion maven who takes Sophie under her wing; her gay, law school dropout turned artist friend; her father, a semi-successful maker of pornographic films; a surprisingly insightful client, currently incarcerated at Sing Sing; even the enigmatic doorman of the building Sophie lives in makes for a memorable presence in his few scenes.
The supporting cast, however, is not merely there as pretty window dressing. Each serves as a unique piece of the puzzle that is Sophie’s life. Her challenge is in learning to understand how her interactions with each are either helping or hurting her growth as a person and potentially contributing to her condition, which is eventually diagnosed as a psychosomatic illness caused by stress.
Plank has created a wonderfully three-dimensional and quite believable character in Sophie, and Swallow presents an almost painfully realistic portrait of a young woman’s journey from emotional repression and self-doubt to emotional freedom and self-assurance.