Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater is a heartbreaking collection about lost children, oblivious adults, dying parents, dead girlfriends, cruel brothers, brutal friendships, and girls on the edge. In short, it was right up my alley and I really loved it.
If pressed to pick a favorite story, it would have to be “What We Save”–on the surface it is about a family trip to Disney to meet up with old friends. But below, it is about a mother, Nancy, who is a dying and–more importantly–letting go and a daughter, Helena, who is learning what it means to be a woman–all of the glorious and terrifying parts of it–and who hopes to bring her dying mother back to life within her artwork, and within herself:
Helena had done everything she could think of to hold on to what her mother had lost. She’d imagined her mother’s organs going through a kind of re-forging, a kind of mystical cleansing, after which they’d start their lives again in Helena’s body–her mother’s sick breasts becoming Helena’s new healthy ones; her mother’s ovaries, reborn, shooting estrogen into Helena’s bloodstream. She’d seen herself as the woman on the right side of the collage, the outline into which her mother’s organs were been transplaced. She’d saved strands of her mother’s hair, fingernail parings, eyelashes, things she’d be able to touch six months or two years from now. She hadn’t been able to say what it was she was dreading–not her mother’s death, because that was beyond imagining. But as she watched her mother walk through the Magic Kingdom, eyes half focused, arms limp at her sides, past six-foot-tall mice and cotton-candy vendors and pink benches, in the shadow of Brian Sewald and his family, Helena knew that this was what she’d feared: her mother’s decision to let go, to shrug off the things she’d saved.
From one scene to the next, from the beginning to the end, this story breaks you in two–indicative of the impact of this collection as a whole. These are stories told with great care, brutal honesty, and much love. I say, buy this book and read it and cherish it.