As part of our ongoing collaboration with the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, our writers have accepted the challenge of reading and reviewing pre-publication review copies of highly anticipated young adult literature. The reviews are posted here for our readers, but also will be sent to the Book House where they will hopefully be used to inform customers about the books they may want to purchase.We will try to publish one review a week for the spring.
The reviews contain spoilers, so be forewarned!
The Art of Not Breathing
by Sarah Alexander
Published April 2016
288 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In this novel, The Art of Not Breathing, there are a few major themes- grief, family, and facing your fears. The prominent characters are the Main family (Elsie, Eddie, Dillon, Celia, and Colin). It could be debatable which theme the story revolves around but family would be my choice, it is the core of the story and the rest just branches off from it.
The book is written from the main character, Elsie Main’s, perspective. She is a quirky, quiet, sixteen-year-old living in the small town of Fortrose in the city of The Black Isle. “The people here like to know everything about everyone. Nearly everyone in Fortrose knows who I am. ‘You’re Elsie Main, right?’ they ask.” (28). The reader is put inside the family life and is able to see how the characters interact. Elsie’s twin brother, Eddie, drowned five years ago and Elsie spends her time trying to uncover memories from the day it happened, “There’s a flash like a light bulb exploding, and I’m back there on the day Eddie went missing, searching for him, the icy water nearly up to my waist” (63). Elsie also has an older brother, Dillon, who is smart, independent, and what we think of as “perfect” until later in the book, when we realize not everyone can be perfect and strong all the time. Dillon is her father’s favorite, while Elsie is more like her mother. Elsie’s mother and father (Colin and Celia) have tension throughout the book and the reader experiences it first hand, seeming as though sometimes we’re the ones standing in between Colin and Celia as they argue, “Dillon and I get home just as dad is leaving. He carries the last box to the car, and Mum stands at the gate with mascara all over her face” (133). Throughout Elsie’s journey of uncovering what really happened on the day Eddie died, she meets a few friends (one being very special but also trouble, Tay McKenzie) and spends most of her time (ironically enough) at a boat house. Tay also introduces Elsie to a new hobby and she picks it up quickly despite her family’s fear of water– diving. “My legs, strong and powerful, propel me through the arch and out into the open water. Then I follow the moon’s reflection to get back to the surface. When I break through, I’m out farther than I thought, at least a hundred meters from the rocks, and the water out here is choppy. Rain stings my face as I swim back to shore, Eddie’s T-shirt clenched tightly in my fist” (233). Elsie’s descriptions of her diving experiences are thorough and make you feel as though you’re the one under water. Also, each diving experience has a purpose or something to come out of it– making the reader wanting more.
As a reader, this book kept me wanting to find out more about the Main family. I believe the author, Sarah Alexander, was trying to convey to us the importance of family and also how it can be good to break from your shell– good to try new things and be adventurous. Alexander successfully conveyed that message to the reader by using flashbacks and showing us the raw emotion of human nature within these characters she created. She was able to do this through her choice of themes (family, grief, and facing your fears).
The themes of family, grief, and facing your fears are things everyone faces in their lifetime– they speak to you and are relatable, which adds to the success of Alexander’s book. But, one downside for some readers could be the way this book is written. There are many flashbacks with memories of Eddie and also Eddie appears in Elsie’s life everyday (being the backbone to the flashback part of the story)– this style of writing flows with the grief theme but it can be difficult to keep up with. Another thing about this book that I would change if I could is the late introduction of Eddie. In the beginning of the story it is hard to differentiate between the two brothers (Eddie and Dillon). As the reader, I had to re-read from the beginning and organize the characters out in my head since we weren’t introduced to Dillon, but after that was sorted out no other major problems or difficulties stuck out to me. Besides grief, the theme of family is a prominent part of this book as well, it is the core of the story as family is the core of each of our stories. This makes the book easier for the reader to understand and relate to, it also makes it more enjoyable to read since maybe you went through the same problem in your own life or did the same mistake. Last but not least is the theme of facing your fears: everyone has fears in their life and some people choose to face them while others don’t. The fear factor of this story and the anticipation adds to the thrilling feature of suspense. Elsie’s family is against going in the water due to her twin brothers drowning yet she continues to dive and goes further and further, uncovering clues the deeper she goes. Elsie is a person who chose to face her fears for her family to lift up some of the burden of grief. All the themes are able to merge into one to complete the story, The Art of Not Breathing.
All in all I would highly recommend this book. Despite the beginning and sometimes hard to understand flashbacks, I think anyone who enjoys suspense would enjoy this. This story speaks to anyone who has been through any sort of grief, family troubles, or it may just be the push someone needs to break from their shell– with the core being family, this is an enjoyable read and continuously keeps the reader wanting to turn the page.