Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 28 March 2014

"How to breathe underwater" by Julie Orringer (Viking, 2003)

9 stories, mostly 20-30 pages long.

"Pilgrims" - Third-person, child-centred. A family whose mother's on chemo go to a gathering in a house where the mother's died and alternative healing is the rage. The daughter Ella's tooth comes out so she looks for her parents. They're upstairs, going through a bad moment

"My tooth," Ella said. She knew she should leave, but couldn't.
"It'll grow back bigger and stronger," her father said.
She could see he didn't understand what had happened. If only he mother would stop crying she could explain everything.

Later a boy takes from a girl a memento of her dead mother. The boy takes it up a tree, the girl chasing. The girl falls and dies. Ella goes into the house again. This time her parents are in a group meditation - her father more reluctantly than her mother, though he plays along. They leave before the dead body is discovered. Finally, in the car, Ella feels that they're "moving to a place where strange beds awaited them, where they would fall asleep thinking of dark forests and wake to the lives of strangers". I was expecting more signs of a shift in the relationship between Ella's parents.

In "When She Is Old and I Am Famous" a plain girl, Mira, who's on a Art course in Italy, is visited by her younger cousin, Aida, a model who nearly died in an accident the previous year - "I'm not named after the character," she said. "I'm named after the entire opera.". They don't get on, especially when boys are around.

"The Isabel Fish" is the third story with children or youths who don't get on. Isabel died in a car accident that Maddy survived. Maddy's older brother Sage was in love with Isabel and blames Maddy for not saving his girlfriend from the submerged car. Maddy is learning to Scuba dive (her psychologist mother's idea) and keeps fish for her science experiments. She's named one of the fish Isabel. Sage kills some of the fish, mucking up her homework. After a crisis of confidence at a scuba lesson, Maddy finally succeeds, and Sage apologetically stops being so nasty. "We tread water, watching each other through our masks. I cannot see his eyes through the glass, but I can see, reflected small and blue, a girl wearing swim fins and a metal tank, self-contained and breathing underwater."

"Note to Sixth-Grade Self" is in the following style - "When it is time for the boys to pick, do not bite your hangnails. Do not pull at your skirt. Watch how Patricia and Cara lean together and whisper and laugh, as if they don't care whether or not they get picked.". Classmates play bitchy tricks on the narrator. There's a fairly happy ending.

"The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones" has more adolescent rivalry, more death. After the death of her prematurely born brother, Rebecca stays with her cousin in Israel. I know little about the Jewish religion, so at first I thought she was being brainwashed by a weird cult. She lies in the grass - "For what feels like the first time all summer, I am alone. I rub the pebble with my thumb, imagining it to be a magic stone that will make me smaller and smaller in the tall grass ... There is a presence gathering around me, an iridescent light I can see through my laced eyelashes. I lie still against the earth, faint with dread, and I feel the planet spinning through space, its dizzying momentum, its unstoppable speed. It is God who makes the shadows dissolve around me ... I want to know what He wants and do what He wants, and I let my mind fall blank, waiting to be told". This pebble might be one of the title's stones. Rebecca feels guilty because once she knew her brother would be an invalid she wished him dead. Later, her cousin twice threatens her, saying "if you tell anybody about it, you're dead.". Her cousin is naughty, breaking the rules.

In "Care", Tessa is looking after Olivia, the 6 year-old daughter of Tessa's much more successful sister. While Tessa's in a toilet cubicle waiting for some drugs to kick in, Olivia wanders off. They're re-united later at a police station. I liked much of the description of Tessa's troubled state of mind, though the flashback in the cubicle seemed strangely detailed and coherent in the circumstances.

"Stars of Motown Shining Bright" begins with Lucy (15) waiting to be collected in a car by Melissa. They're going 40 miles to spend the night at Jack's. Unknown to Melissa, Lucy lost her virginity to him the week before. On the journey Melissa tells Lucy that she and Jack are going away the next day to be married, and that Lucy needs to play her part as accomplice. Jack tries to have sex with Lucy while Melissa's back is turned. Lucy draws a gun (which in Chekovian fashion we've been told about earlier - it's Jack's), locking Jack in a cupboard and making Melissa leave with her. That's it really.

"What We Save" - Helena (14) and her younger sister Margot are going to a DisneyWorld place for the day with their mother Nancy (who's dying from cancer and wears a wig). They meet Brian (balding), a college friend of their Mother, and his wife Nora (who's not as clever as Nancy). He has 16 year old twin sons who are stoned. On a ride one twin encourages the other to touch Helena up. Nancy secretly gives Brian a present that he secretly looks at then discards. Helena recovers it, discovers that it's the dried gardenias that her mother had worn on a night 19 years before.

"Stations of the Cross" - Lila (pregnant for the first time) and husband are holidaying in Mexico. Lila's mother sends her a note to say that someone Lila once knew, Dale Forunot, had been killed by a suicide bomber in Israel. We flashback to when Lila (Jew) was 9 and with Carney (Catholic), also 9, preparing for Carney's communion. Carney's cousin Dale, born out of wedlock (and "half black"), is due to visit. Carney dislikes him. Lila knows about the colour-prejudices prevalent where Carney lives, and fears that there'll be an awkward incident. Lila's parents had already split by then, so Lila, like Dale, was from a single-parent family. At the gathering after the communion service, Carney's mother makes Dale's mother cry. Lila's present to Carney gets broken. They enact a little play, "Stations of the Cross", where Lila is the Virgin Mary. Dale is left out, then suggests he could be Jesus. They fabricate a cross from some old wood. At the end of the game Carney tells Lila to tie Dale to the cross. Lila doesn't want to, but Carney's her best friend at school. When Dale's tied, Carney beats him until Dale's mother appears and calls the other adults.

I realise that this write-up's mostly been about plot. Death, and children's nastiness to other children feature strongly. The girls are as bad as the boys.

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