How To Breathe Underwater

how to breatheThis collection of stories by Julie Orringer sounds as if it’s going to be miserable. Here we have girls — mostly teenage girls, some younger — going through a familiar collection of life’s cruelties, fears, and humiliations: displacement, addiction, illness, grief, loneliness, guilt. Yet somehow the book isn’t menacing or terrible. In these stories there are bright flecks, moments of victory and recognition and reconciliation, that make the collection beautiful rather than unrelievedly grim. (Not that literature can’t be both, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

The worst and most unsettling thing in Orringer’s world is when the adults abandon responsibility. Ill or absent mothers snake through these stories, as in “Pilgrims,” when Ben and Ella’s parents take them to some sort of hippie commune for Thanksgiving in the hope that Ella’s mother will find healing from cancer and chemotherapy. The story would balance on a fine edge between humor and tragedy, except that the children see no humor in the strangeness of their circumstances. In “Care,” Tessa is taking care of her six-year-old niece Olivia during a day out in San Francisco. The slow deterioration of the day — Tessa’s own need for a caretaker, the absence of a real authority figure even over the child, let alone larger issues like the environment — allow us into a kind of angry compassion.

Orringer’s realism refuses to duck away from the girls’ circumstances: no plot point is ever stretched beyond its snapping point, and characters are left to breathe in ambiguity. In my favorite story, “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” a stereotypical situation that pits two girls against each other is wrenched onto a new track by what might be an act of violence, or what might be an act of pure friendship. I expected “Note to Sixth-Grade Self” to be admonitory, a “don’t go into the haunted house” sort of thing. Instead, it was a description.

When you arrive at the entrance to Uptown Square, with its marble arches and potted palms, you will pretend to see Cara and Patricia inside. You will kiss your mother and watch her drive away. Then you will stand beside the potted palms and wait for Patricia and Cara. You will take off your broken glasses and put them in your pocket, and adjust the hem of your shirt. You will wait there for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. When you run inside to use the bathroom you will hurry your way through, afraid that you’re keeping them waiting, but when you go outside again they will still not be there.

Stop this. They are not coming.

Do this, because that really was your life then; do that, because you actually did it, and now you are who you are today. It was far more poignant than any mere advice could have been.

I picked this book up because I read about it in Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, and I’m so glad I read it. There are no smooth ways across here, but there is growth and learning, and the occasional spark of real understanding and love. These are good stories, definitely recommended.

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How To Breathe Underwater

  1. Christy says:

    I think I would enjoy reading these, though there might be some painful twinges. I would say that sixth-grade was the worst, except for the existence of seventh-grade.

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