Book #8: How to Breathe Underwater

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Title: How to Breathe Underwater
Author: Julie Orringer
# of Pages: 222
Genre: Collection of Short Stories, Fiction

I first read about this book in a magazine back in 2003 when this collection of short stories was published. The magazine review must have had some kind of significant impact on me because I remember going out and buying the book the first chance I got, even though I don’t normally pay full price for books (and I especially don’t usually buy them when they first come out, as they are always more expensive anyway). But buy it I did, and tried reading it right away, only to discover immediately that many of the stories were too disturbing and mature for my taste.

So the book has sat ever since on my shelf, cover facing out, tempting me to try it again.

I decided to pick it up finally to give myself a bit of a break from the traditional novel format; since this is a collection of short stories, I figured it would be easier to get into than a full-blown story. And in that respect, I was right–the stories were fast-paced, emotionally gripping, and well-written to say the least. But there was still that hurdle to get over that a lot of the content was disturbing and rather depressing.

Each of the nine short stories in this collection focus on pivotal moments in different girls’ lives as they are growing up in present-day America. The girls in the stories face everything from body issues to abuse to death to cruelty, and each story is formed around a critical decision that must be made. Unfortunately, many of the girls in the stories choose to act poorly (or not act at all) and live with the far-reaching consequences of their actions. I was saddened by many of the stories, and a few of them left me sick with the cruelty of the characters.

There was, however, one story that made me so glad that I’d picked up the anthology again: “Note to Sixth-Grade Self.” This story is written to the speaker’s sixth-grade self (obviously at a point later in life), and at first, you think that the note is going to try to direct her young pre-teen self to take a different path of action. But surprisingly, it doesn’t. In the end, it’s just a re-telling of what happened from an older point of view. The story tells of a pivotal moment in her dance class, when the speaker chose to rise to the top of the class so that she could dance with her crush. All that follows after is the revenge sought by the other girls against her. And since it’s one of the few stories that actually ends triumphantly, I loved it.

While the stories were expertly crafted and well-told, I was often sickened by the conclusions, and I was pretty sensitive about the language and some of the content as well. These stories are definitely not for the faint of heart, but they are powerful.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

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