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Swallow
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Sophie Hegel left Florence to attend Yale Law School although her shyness makes public speaking a combat sport. At school during a debate she met decade older Stephen. In early 2001 with the Towers still part of the landscape, she graduates and passes the New York State bar Exam. Sophie starts work at New York City's Public defender Office and moves into Stephen's Manhattan apartment.

Engaged to marry, they are having dinner together when she suddenly cannot eat or speak and barely can breath. Her throat feels stuffed by a ball the size of her fiancé's fist. She remembers as a seven years old having the first time the fist blocked her throat when she, her sister and mom left their dad in California to move to the Arizona penitentiary city of Florence. Finally deciding to learn what her condition is, Sophie finds out she suffers from a psychosomatic illness Globus Sensate; a condition that makes it difficult to represent her Sing Sing clients in a court of affluence, but 9/11 will soon teach her what terror truly is as she walks down sixteen flights.

This is a terrific character study of a mid twenties woman struggling with a psychological disorder that attacks her physically at importune moments in a world and in her mind already out of control with unfairness. Whether it is Arizona, New Haven, or New York, Sophie struggles to survive feeling like an outsider; enabling her to empathize with her poverty stricken clients. Fans will root for this wonderful heroine who refuses to allow her delicate condition and her sense of not belonging from preventing her from doing her best for her indigent clients who face a system that scorns them as losers for being poor.

Harriet Klausner
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2010
Not only was this book a blast to read, but it also offered me an unlikely education in subjects as far ranging as criminal appeals, dress sizes, and therapy. It's a very metropolitan mix, and this is very much a New York book. Who knew such peril could lurk within the sugary haze of Serendipity? And because the main character originally hails from a small town in Arizona, the perspective can be by turns inside and outside. Highly recommended for native New Yorkers, fellow transplants, and anyone curious about what it's like to carve out a life in NYC.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2010
"Like so many times since arriving on the East Coast, I realized that, for all the oohs and aahs I received back home for my accomplishments, they amounted to absolutely nada here". - Sophie Hegel

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 the transition to the fast paced world of NYC easy. 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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2011
Plot/Storyline: 3 1/2 Stars

While this novel really pulled me in with the opening scenes, it really sagged under its own weight in the middle. I enjoyed every section that built the storyline, but there were way too many long stretches that strayed from the point.

There were plenty of scenes that explained Sophie's problems, but unfortunately, they were diluted by so many irrelevant ones. At the beginning, I had real trouble figuring out what was so wrong with her life. Her boyfriend appeared perfect, and she was going to marry him. She had a job she loved. Sure, she had a nutty family, but that's certainly not unusual. It took forever to find out what was wrong with the boyfriend. There weren't even any real hints along the way, which there should have been since his marriage proposal appeared to be what set off Sophie's condition.

While most of this novel was very realistic, the scenes involving Sophie's visits to her psychiatrist are ridiculously improbable. At least, I hope they were. Her psychiatrist was like a caricature from a comedy skit. He only nodded or said things like, "And how did that make you feel?" Okay, perhaps there are some lousy therapists out there. However, Sophie could not eat! She was slowly starving herself. Surely, the guy would have noticed how much weight she was losing and been a little concerned.

A humorous side note: At one point Sophie gets a call on her cell phone while she is busy with someone. She checks the caller ID, then turns off her phone, or at least that's what she said, "I turned it off." Later, as she is walking out the door, her phone vibrates in her purse to tell her she has a missed call. I'm glad my phone doesn't do things like that after I turn it off. If it did, I would change my ringtone to the theme for "The Twilight Zone." (Because she could have meant that she turned the ringer off, I'm still giving this the benefit of the doubt.)

The ending was enjoyable. It wrapped up all relevant plot threads without descending into "Happily Ever After Land."

Characters: 4 Stars

I found Sophie to be an intriguing, multi-level character. I think I really related to her because I am a `slow to boil' person, also, who has trouble showing anger. I think people who are better at it, especially those who `fly off the handle' easily, don't understand this personality type. And, those who do have trouble expressing anger, like Sophie, often have it manifest physically.

Sophie's boyfriend, whom she gets engaged to early in the novel, was too flat and stereotypical. Even though he is an integral part of the story, he doesn't get the face time required for readers to delve into his personality. Instead, everything about him must be inferred, which is rather unfair to him, if it's possible to be unfair to a fictional character. Don't get me wrong. I had zero sympathy for him. However, that's because his character didn't evoke many feelings at all, with the exception of one short scene. That one scene happened too late in the novel to make much impact.

The supporting cast had many delightful characters, my favorite being Sophie's two best friends.

Writing Style: 3 Stars

The sentence structure in this novel gave me a great deal of irritation. The author would drop the subject from her sentences. At first, I thought it wsa an editing problem. However, after it happened so often, I realized it was just the writing style. Now, this might have been okay in a diary-like format, but in this book, it occurred at such odd times that I found myself reading sentences more than once, or even backing up to see if I had missed something.

The descriptions were very well done with some good analogies. I also enjoyed the dialogue, especially in the phone calls from one of Sophie's clients.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2010
Tonya Plank's Swallow is a uniquely familiar book. A rough outline of the plot will be familiar to readers: A small town girl with self-esteem issues is a young professional in the big city. She overcomes pressures and psychological issues to make her own way in the world. That plot has been done a few hundred times. Of course, at there core, most books have familiar plots. What sets one book apart from hundreds of other similar books are the details, and Plank does deliver uniqueness in the details.

First, main character Sophie Hegel's self-esteem issues manifest as an inability to swallow; she feels what she describes as a fist-sized ball in her throat that sometimes prevents her from talking, breathing and swallowing normally. Consequently, Sophie loses a lot of weight. Since she's a lawyer, I kept picturing Ally McBeal every time the author goes in to detail about dress sizes. To fix this swallowing problem, Sophie must confront her personal issues and gain confidence in herself. The uniqueness of Sophie's problem keeps the familiar plot fresh.

The other thing that Plank does uniquely is to write an intelligent character who actually is intelligent. Far too often in this type of work, writers tell the reader over and over again how brilliant the main character is. Plank resists that urge and just shows us Sophie's intelligence. Sophie is a fictional lawyer who actually uses legal terminology correctly. Similarly, the conversations between Sophie and her fiance discuss intellectual issues appropriately.

Swallow does have a few flaws. Of little importance to me are a small handful of grammatical and spelling errors that may turn off some readers. More importantly, the middle section of the book drags on longer than necessary. At the same time, the primary swallowing issue is shunted somewhat to the side. Instead, we are given conflicts between Sophie and her family, and then a conflict between Sophie and a female friend of her fiance. While these sections are important to show the issues that Sophie must overcome, the pacing is off.

Fans of this genre should check out Swallow and look for future books by the author.

The author provided me with a review copy of the book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2012
But the star rating doesn't lie: I hated it. As with other reviewers, initially I found the main character to be an engaging, likable character. But as in the review directly prior to mine, I found the character's appreciation of her anorexic state disconcerting. If that had ever been addressed or redeemed, it'd have made perfect sense as a well done bit of writing - but instead, the final scenes continue to involve celebration of weight loss (in a character who'd previously been called gorgeous, with long drop-dead legs, etc, as well as with a fashion show reference), a theme which was clearly meant to be troublesome earlier (or was it?). I felt a bit as if we left Sophie and the story and instead wandered into the author's struggle to fit into a rigidly shallow society while beginning to earn enough money herself to justify spending hundreds on a bikini and begin to buy her way through the maze.

Speaking of, while some felt the 9/11 setting gave Sophie the impetus to move forward, I felt instead as if the author simply wanted to get her personal 9/11 story out there. It was not necessary to the book, is a complicated issue for many and it feels a bit manipulative to have been dragged into that story. It is a hell and I mean HELL of a thing to have lived through, I am not making light of that and I imagine it would be hard *not* to put your character in your shoes, but it just didn't work for me, for this story.

Additionally, I was left feeling that the final "resolution" was something of a cop-out when the author simply couldn't figure out how *to* resolve some issues. I mean, what would the resolution be in regards to Sophie's family? Stephen? Even Alana. Who knows. Better to just find a location cure and call it a day.

Maybe that's my main issue - at some point, the story became less of a story and more of a fragmented personal journal.

*Apologies for the old-school internet use of asterisks in lieu of bolding or italicizing

And a p.s. to the author or anyone else who might be interested,
In pop culture references, the nude model being splashed with a hose (seen during a gallery event in the book) is generally accepted as evoking one being splashed with, er, something else. In short, the argument over her body type was missing a pretty flagrant message as to the model's agency - as in her capacity to control her situation, not her modeling agency. And if in this case, a hose was just a hose... that still brings pretty strong human rights imagery to mind. But you know, she's so skinnnnny! It just seemed so odd in the midst of several sort of random "feminist" comments to have missed the largest issue with that type of imagery. In particular, given Sophie's dad's line of work, it's not something that would've flown under the radar. I instantly began to dislike Sophie during the scene.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Meh. This book takes two very serious subjects (a mental illness and 9/11) and tries to turn them into a lightweight, chick-lit comedy. It shouldn't surprise anyone that it doesn't work all that well. What does surprise me is that it won several awards.

The main character, Sophie, is a young lawyer who suffers from Globus Sensate, a sensation that an imaginary ball (which she has named Fistball or F-B because it feels like a human fist) is stuck in her throat. Although imaginary, it feels very real to the sufferer, and can even lead to choking and loss of consciousness. It interferes with Sophie's ability to talk, eat, and even to drink water. She begins to lose weight at such an alarming rate that her family and friends think she has anorexia.

Aware that it is a mental condition rather than a real blockage, Sophie tries to hide her problem from her colleagues, friends, family, and especially from her perfectionist, snobbish, and controlling fiancé.

There is a scene in which an ex-girlfriend of Sophie's fiancé throws an engagement party for them, but steals the show, monopolizes the fiancé's attention, and publicly excludes Sophie from the close and lifelong bond that she has with Sophie's boyfriend. It's apparently supposed to be funny, but for me it was excruciatingly painful to read. (Perhaps it bothered me more because I once went to a female friend's wedding where that really did happen.)

And it didn't make sense that a young woman with enough intelligence to be an attorney can't see what a jerk her boyfriend is and dump him.

I was thoroughly offended by the way all people who live in Arizona are portrayed as vulgar, illiterate, "trailer trash" (the writer's term, no offense intended by me - I can't speak for Plank - to anyone who lives in a mobile home.) It's way over the top, obviously deliberately caricatured in an attempt at humor, but it fell flat with this Arizonan. I suspect that even readers who are not from Arizona might find it irritatingly overdone.

Also the part about 9/11 didn't seem to relate to the rest of the book. I can see why any book set in New York during the time period encompassing 2001 would need to mention 9/11. It had such a huge impact that to ignore it would seem surreal and implausible. But Plank didn't need to include a scene of Sophie escaping down a 19-story stairwell which does absolutely nothing to forward the plot. Even the writer seems to realize this, as she quickly skims over the scene. She does attempt to tie in the 9/11 scenes with the story by making 9/11 the inspiration for Sophie to get her act together, but again, she doesn't develop it enough to make that work.

I did enjoy the descriptions of fashions, and I was especially interested to learn about Globus Sensate, which I had never heard of before. That's what the three stars are for.

(402 pages)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2010
Don't let the first paragraph of the book put you off. I thought to myself, OMG, what am I reading? I kept going and I'm glad I did.

Sophie is a recent graduate of Yale Law (and the University of Arizona) who is living her dream (or is she?): a job she loves defending the indigent in the PD's Appeals office, successful older attorney boyfriend, a fabulous apartment on the Upper East Side, great clothes and chic friends.

The problem is that deep down, she still feels like the little girl from the wrong side of the tracks who was abandoned by her father, a director of soft-porn. She feels very out of place in the high society in which she finds herself thrust by her engagement. She's panicked when she realizes that people are going to meet her slutty sister and her rude, boorish nephews. She's ashamed of her past and would prefer it just go away.

Just before her first argument before the Appeals Court, she discovers that she can't swallow, she's developed what she named 'Fist Ball'. Yes, she named this presence in her throat and even decided that it was a 'he'. This FB gets in the way of just about every important moment and then some. She can't speak, can't eat and during the worst of it, can't even breathe.

Of course, this obstruction isn't physical, it's psychological and Sophie goes through months of therapy trying to rid herself of this curse. The FB rears its ugly head during any stressful moment: her engagement to the controlling and condescending Stephen, her encounters with his old 'friend', who is the worst kind of slutty snob that only the very best education can produce, while trying on wedding dresses. She faints at a political benefit and can't speak at all during her oral arguments before the State Supreme Court. Sophie begins to waste away, much to the horror of her fiance and friends. Midway through the story, 9/11 occurs, which is very indeed germaine to the plot. I don't do spoilers or I'd have a lot more to say about the storyline, which was original and believeable.

I grew a teensy bit impatient with the heroine towards the end, but the story resolves well and overall I found it to be very enjoyable. I was surprised to read elsewhere that it was 402 pages in paperback, because I read it in under 24 hours. The plot moves along well. Other, more literate reviewers can speak to other literary facets of the book. I wouldn't say that it was 'LOL' funny, but I found myself smiling several times. It's tough to write about characters such as these and not turn them into characatures, but Ms. Plank handled them very well.

The book is well-written and an excellent first attempt, definitely deserves the prizes it has won. It definitely fits well into the uber-popular 'chick lit' genre. I will be reading whatever the author comes up with next!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2010
Sophie Hegel is a small town girl that has worked hard to get where she is today. She is still shy and soft spoken, but she's graduated from Yale Law School and gotten a job as a lawyer who files appeals for convicts she feels are wrongly convicted. She's dating a prestigous harvard graduate lawyer, had terrific friends, lives in a terrific apartment, but just when she thinks everything is going so right, things start tumbling downhill.
Sophie begins to feela fist-like ball begin to form at the base of her throat. She begins to see a psychiatrist and is diagnosed with a pyschological condition known as Globus Sensate. This fist-ball begins to cause all sorts of problems as it causes her to have difficulty eating, speaking, and even breathing. Given her job and her relationship, this does not bode well for poor Sophie. Sophie wonders if she'll somehow be able to overcome her problem or if it will destroy her life and possibly even kill her.
Swallow portrays itself to be a dark comedy about families that distance themselves and begin to fall apart completely, the trial of maintaining various relationships, and the trials and tribulations of a small town nobody among prestigious somebodies. I can see the latter, I don't agree with the dark comedy bit whatsoever. I saw nothing humorous, sarcastic, or anything close anywhere in Swallow. The story just drags on and on and on. The characters are dry and boring. The plot goes nowhere and fails to get anywhere near a climax until the last few pages.
Fortunately the book had a few pages of something that interested me. We finally get to see Sophie become and interesting person. She learns to assert herself and do what needs to be done. She learns who she is, what she wants, and begins to take the steps to get it. I only wish she'd done this sooner in the book. I wish anybody had done this sooner in the book. It was just a complete bore. I had a very hard time wanting to read the whole thing.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2010
Besides having a background in the law, Tonya Plank is one of New York's better-known dance bloggers ("Swan Lake Samba Girl"). However, I was not prepared to discover that, as a fiction writer, Plank has quite a snappy and compelling voice. Her first novel, Swallow, moves at a fast clip. Begin reading it and, very quickly, before you know how you got there, she has pulled you into the deep end. How deep? Well, consider that her young lawyer protagonist literally struggles with a shaming childhood trauma that takes the form of a fist-ball in her throat that prevents her from swallowing food, a nightmarish somatization that steadily worsens. An American novel exploring the dark side of family is surely nothing new, but Plank's narrative angle and her approach to character set off in unusual directions. Try Swallow, and keep an eye on this fresh writer's future.
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