Study Guide

Sailing

by Susan Kenney

Sailing Analysis

Sailing (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This well-written novel opens on a happy note. A young married couple, Phil and Elizabeth Boyd, gaze longingly at sailboats; can they afford to buy one on Phil’s salary as a college English professor? Even if they cannot, they need only wait another year. It soon transpires, however, that this pleasant problem is a mere facade. There may well be no next year, since Phil suffers from an incurable malignant tumor.

Though debilitated by his illness, Phil has discharged himself from the hospital, wishing to take one last sailing trip. At this point, the novel jumps backward to the Boyds’ life before Phil received the sad news. In perhaps an overly sentimental fashion, Susan Kenney describes the couple’s first meeting as fellow graduate students. Marriage soon ensued, and the couple appeared set for conventionally successful careers.

Kenney next turns to the subject that principally occupies her throughout the book, the stages of Phil’s illness and treatment. He learned the nature of his plight only after much suffering and unsuccessful treatment. The illness at first strained his marriage, though eventually strengthening it. Phil’s love of sailing and the couple’s nostalgic reminiscences of their trips form a leitmotif in the portrayal of the couple’s emotions.

Phil, embarking on his planned last sailing trip, must confront an unexpected question. A new medical technique offers a faint prospect of some alleviation of his condition. Will he proceed with one more in an interminable string of operations? His answer forms a fitting climax to this powerful and affecting story.