The Air You Breathe
by Frances de Pontes Peebles
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 464 Pages
Release date: August 21, 2018
The story of an intense female friendship fueled by affection, envy and pride–and each woman’s fear that she would be nothing without the other.
Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music.
One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes–and haunt their memories.
Traveling from Brazil’s inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship–its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses–and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.
“Fame is longing. Not yours, but the audience’s. A star is nothing more, nothing less, than the public face of private desire.”
The Air You Breathe is a story about music, ambition, power, and love. Dores has a lopsided friendship with Graça, tainted by Graça’s selfishness and Dores’ position as a servant in her home. As the girls grow older, sexuality further complicates things. If your reading experience is anything like mine, you will find yourself in the unusual position of disliking Graça while totally understanding why Dores loves her. Despite all her flaws, she is charismatic, almost magnetic, and Dores would do almost anything for her.
While factors like classism make the scenario in The Air You Breathe particularly extreme, I think most of us will relate to Dores on some level. We’ve all had a friend or significant other who was clearly less invested in the relationship than we were. We’ve all felt unappreciated and stuck around anyway, at least for a while. The relationship between the two girls is so well developed and believable, and watching it change as they grew up together was captivating, with love and resentment playing equal parts.
“If remembering tells us who we are, then forgetting keeps us sane. If we recalled every song we’d ever heard, every touch we’d ever felt, every pain no matter how small, every sadness no matter how petty, every joy no matter how selfish, we could surely lose our minds.”
The novel is intensely atmospheric, transporting us from 1930’s Brazil to 1940’s Hollywood. Bazil is characterized by the samba music both Graça and Dores fall in love with. Hollywood is equal parts glamour and struggle, as fame and success can’t shield the characters from racism and suspicion.
The author’s writing style is eloquent, almost poetic, and simply watching her play with words was one of the highlights of the novel. This worked particularly well as it is told from Dores’ point of view, and she is passionate about writing. Dores develops a distinct voice and her love of language shines through on every single page. The Air You Breathe is an emotional, beautiful read.
Thank you for reading! If you’ve read The Air You Breathe, please share your thoughts in the comments! What’s another novel you’ve read lately where relationships between female characters were integral to the plot?