erasing clouds

Book Review: Julie Orringer's How to Breathe Underwater

by anna battista

There are probably no adults who will tell you that growing up for them wasn’t somehow a painful process. Going to school, finding friends, being bullied, ridiculed, even ostracised for your religious beliefs or for the colour of your skin are often tragic rites of passage in our lives. These are also the main themes of the nine stories collected in this anthology by Julie Orringer.

In the first tale, ‘Pilgrims’, we follow brother and sister Ben and Ella going with their parents to a special macrobiotic Thanksgiving dinner at a stranger’s house. While the adults are distracted cooking and meditating and helping Ben and Ella's mothers' healing from her terminal illness, a silent tragedy is consumed in the garden. The theme of the ill mother comes back again along the book in ‘What We Save’, where a cancer-stricken mother goes to Disney World with her two daughters to meet an old boyfriend and his family.

Growing up while being introverted and shy is explored in ‘Note to Sixth-Grade Self’, about a sixth grade girl with few friends and low self-esteem. The whole story is told in the second person, as if the author were doing a list of suggestions and advice for her main character (“Stop this … Don't waste time thinking about drowning yourself. Don't bother imagining your funeral, with your classmates in black clothes or a treeless stretch of lawn. If you die you will not be there to see it, and your classmates probably won't be either.”).

‘The Isabel Fish’ explores the theme of dealing with bereavement: the teenager protagonist is trying to overcome the shock of surviving an accident in which her brother's girlfriend Isabel died. To do it, though, she needs to confront her fear of being underwater at scuba classes, while her brother Sage bullies her, blaming her for what happened to Isabel.

The anthology closes with ‘Stations of the Cross’, possibly the best story of the volume: during a First Communion party a group of kids re-enacts Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, but unconsciously also restages a KKK lynching.

Adolescent insecurity, embarrassing and turbulent moments, anxieties and introspection, fears and longings, jealousy, loneliness, frustration, nostalgia and intimate but tragic friendships are the ingredients of How to Breathe Underwater. Orringer creates ordinary but heroic characters such as mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins and friends; all of them are social outcasts, yet they move and fascinate the reader, in their struggle to survive and breathe under physical waters or under the pressures of the darkest human emotions.

Orringer was born in 1973 in Miami, Florida, but spent most of her childhood years in New Orleans and Ann Arbor. In 1996 she moved to San Francisco where she worked in many different jobs, while writing stories. A year later, The Yale Review published one of her stories and from then on her works appeared on more magazines and won her quite a few prestigious awards. Writing sustained Orringer – who is at present working on her first novel inspired by her grandfather’s experiences - in her life and helped her overcoming the process of growing up and of facing her own mother’s illness.

Wild and heartbreaking, Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater can be defined as a study about human beings and as a dazzling first book.


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