Sunday, October 18, 2009

Just Finished: How to Breathe Underwater

Well...just finished a few weeks ago. I have to be honest, the cover was better than the book. I think of that cover often, not only because it's sitting in plain sight, but because the picture is so beautiful. I'm not the biggest fan of short stories in general because I always want more than the 15 pages allotted, but this book was well reviewed so I took a chance.

How to Breathe Underwater
is Julie Orringer's first collection of short stories. Each is somehow related to adolescence and growing up yet thankfully it's not first kiss, awkward prom date kind of stories. In fact, they aren't really coming of age stories at all, and each is vastly different from the other in subject and locale. The stories are at once ordinary and mundane events yet hold your attention because the people are so real that you could walk past them on the street.

The opening story was perhaps the most striking and is the hardest to describe. A New Orleans family attends Thanksgiving at the home of a new age follower who has been treating the mother of the family who is sick with cancer. The children of the family are thrust into a foreign world of tofurkey and meditation. As they play in the backyard with the other children, they encounter desperation and darkness that culminates in an unexpected ending. In another story, a plump, somewhat self-conscious study abroad student plays host to her cousin, a tall model with whom she has always been at odds and has a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface. Still another story is a witty letter written by an adult woman to her teenage self. All the stories are very human, if not all very original. They are not so much compelling as relatable and are reminiscent of the hardships and tragedies that we have all faced at one time or another. Considering the subject matter, Orringer could have written these stories for teenagers, however her subtle prose puts an adult voice to these stories of youth, rebellion, and self-discovery. Not a must read, but an interesting one.

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