“How to Breathe Underwater”
….before I have a chance to really feel like her daughter again, we’re already saying goodbye.
How to Breathe Underwater is a collection of nine short stories written by Julie Orringer. Published in 2003, the book was dedicated in memory to the author’s mother, Agnes Tibor Orringer who died at the age of 46 in 1994 of cancer. Born in Hungary, Agnes Tibor was educated in the United States and grew up to be a doctor, wife, and mother. The author – 21 at the time of her mother’s death – was deeply impacted by her mother’s illness and although the stories are classified as fiction, the reader can’t help but think the author writes from experience.
The overriding themes of this short story collection include the absence or illness of a mother, the pains of childhood and adolescence, sibling discord, bullying, guilt, anger, death, and the longing to fit in and not be ostracized for being smart, a bookworm, Jewish or not Jewish enough. Each story seems authentic with its honest depictions of how painful the path through childhood and adolescence really is.
In Pilgrims, a young girl named Ella writes of her family forgoing the traditional Thanksgiving meal at home with family and relatives to attend a different sort of meal – a vegetarian meal of seiten, rice, and vegetables – with people who “wore knitted hats like her mother, their skin dull-gray, their eyes purple-shaded underneath.” Ella’s mother is ill with cancer and although the strange group of people welcome her family to their celebration, Ella can’t help but feel like an outsider in this group where sickness ties people together and children act out their feelings in ways unknown and unseen by the adults overwhelmed with their own lives.
In The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones, a Jewish teenager named Rebecca is sent to spend the summer with her orthodox aunt, uncle and cousins while her mother is in the hospital and her father working. The story begins on a Friday afternoon when the family is busy with the Shabbos preparations and continues through the weekend. Rebecca feels like an outsider in her own family when her cousin tells her the orthodox relatives and friends are weary of her because “they think you’re going to show their kids a fashion magazine or give them a unkosher cookie or tell them something they shouldn’t hear.” In trying to understand how she fits in with this group, her uncle, a widower now married to her aunt tells her that his first wife had a saying: The smoothest way is sometimes full of stones.”
Care is the story of Tessa, an angry, young woman who is feeling abandoned both her mother (who died when she was six) and an older sister who opted to marry and have children instead of pursuing a shared dream created in their youth to “go to Barcelona when they finished school, get a tiny apartment there, teach English, go out with dark-eyed men, give the world of careers and babies and husbands a grand and permanent adios.” To anesthetize her pain, Tessa relies on drugs which gives the reader a glimpse into the distorted world of a drug addict charged with the care of her six-year old niece.
One of the most powerful stories in the collection is What We Save. Told from the perspective of Helena, a teenage girl who has come to Disney World with her 6-year old sister and cancer-stricken mother, the story is a recollection of the day spent at the theme park with her mother’s old boyfriend and his family. Heartbreaking and sad, the reader is like a fly on the wall in a house where the events unfold in a series of rooms. A dramatic story of determination, duty, and misplaced affection.
Blame, death, and forgiveness are the themes in The Isabel Fish, a story told from the perspective of a 14-year old girl named Maddy whose brother, Sage blames her for the accidental drowning death of his girlfriend, Isabel in a car accident. Maddy has spent the past four months growing 26 fish from eggs for a science experiment when she finds out her parents have signed her up for a scuba diving course at the local Y to help her overcome her fear of water that resulted from the car accident in which Isabel died and she escaped. The only problem is Sage who continues to act as “judge, jury, jailer, and executioner” as Maddy struggles to regain her footing and her quest for redemption.
The pains of growing up and feeling insecure are almost universal. Being too short, too tall, fat, skinny, too smart, not smart enough, or not pretty plagues most kids and teenagers at some point who want just want to fit in. In Note to Sixth-Grade Self and Stations of the Cross, the author writes of a child’s desire to fit in, sometimes to the detriment of doing the right thing.
Two teenagers – Lucy and Melissa – are planning a weekend getaway in Stars of Motown Shining Bright, with the only problem being they both plan to spend the days and evenings with Jack Jacob, a boy they met in youth group. A humorous and somewhat sad account of how two hapless teenagers who seem completely focused on themselves, how they look, and incapable of making a smart decision somehow keep the beacon in site.
When She is Old and I am Famous is the story of a 20-year old American woman in Florence with her impossibly tall, thin, and beautiful 16-year old cousin who is a model. A gifted artist but self-described fat girl, Mira feels the sting of men ignoring her while ogling her cousin who she greatly dislikes. Vacillating between jealousy, anger and acceptance, Mira struggles with the randomness of genetics, wanting to believe her prospects for success in the long run are potentially better.
How to Breathe Underwater is a beautiful collection of short stories authentic in their ability to capture the pain of growing up and the devastation of loss.