Historical Fiction

The Air You Breathe

Confession: I received a copy of this book back in July 2018, before it was even published (through First to Read), and JUST NOW read it. Embarrassing. I mean, I realize you can’t always keep up with what you plan. But I really have no excuse for it other than just not picking it up sooner. Ah well, you win some, you lose some. And I figure better late than never, right?

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles


“How incredible then that, despite the precariousness of my existence, despite the coarseness and violence that always threatened to suffocate me, there was this beauty, this grace, that had found me through music, and that no one could take from me.”

The Air You Breathe follows Dores, an orphaned girl working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil, and Graça, the daughter of a sugar baron who moves to the plantation. Despite the fact that the girls are wildly different, and from wildly different backgrounds, they bond over a shared discovery and love of music. Graça has a naturally better voice, while Dores is the one that can hear words in the melodies and writes the lyrics that match. But what objectively should be a natural pairing is often not as smooth as it would seem. And although throughout their lives the intimacy of their relationship is what pushes each of them forwards, it also remains competitive and volatile in a way that could, and sometimes does, hold them back.

To be honest, this book started in a way that makes me very nervous. The “old woman looking back from current day into the past” is an opening/structure that, at least for me, feels overused. It also usually injects an intense level of foreshadowing (past-shadowing?) into the story-telling that, since it usually takes all book to build to that twist/shock in the past, ends up feeling overdone for what that eventual “big event” actually is. In this case, the present-day elderly lady POV sections leaned more introspective and philosophical than anything else, which helped mitigate that effect. But overall I still felt like the build-up leading into Graça’s tragedy made it seem too predictable. On the flip side, I did love that each time we moved into a new “section” of the story, with a reflection from current day to start before jumping back into the meat of the story in the past, it began with a set of sing lyrics that Dores wrote. It was really cool to see what samba lyrics actually look/flow like. And I enjoyed that each set of lyrics premeditated and reflected, topically and emotionally, the part of the story we were about to get. As for the writing in general, it was very smooth and smart. And though, at times, I felt like the pacing was a little too slow (and the story dragged a bit at times because of this), and didn’t seem to speed up no matter how invested in the story I got (which was a strange experience for me), I didn’t hate the extra time spent reading the author’s writing.

As far as the history and music are concerned, I found this book fascinating. I knew literally nothing about samba going into the book, but I feel like I’m coming out of it with real knowledge about its importance and place in Brazilian culture. I also learned quite a bit about the more general traditional and cultural landscape in Brazil before, during and after WWII. Although there is actually little to nothing in the book about the war itself, as far as the plot or our characters are concerned, it’s affects on the atmosphere of the country (and in the way it reacts to our characters after they spend time in America) are more central themes. I felt similarly about the political aspects of Brazil. I didn’t come away with a clear timeline or ideological understanding of Brazilian politics during the time, but I did get a vague feel for things based on the way our characters were affected/treated. It was actually a really unique person-based way to demonstrate the day-to-day reality of things. It’s also very self-centered, but I think that fits the overall larger themes and personalities perfectly, so I liked that choice.

Finally, and naturally most importantly, the relationship between Dores and Graça. It was the center stage of this novel from beginning to end and, as is natural and expected for a book of this length, was wonderfully intricate. From the very beginning they are on uneven footing, with Dores being an orphan and house servant, while Graça is the spoiled daughter of the family Dores works for. The tension is there from day one, but also the fascination and, as the only two girls/children of that age around the house, a natural companionship. Graça pushes boundaries and breaks rules from the beginning, and Dores, many times, has no choice but to support her (though is not shy about voicing her concerns). It’s a dynamic that continues into adulthood. Graça is the one with the big hopes and dreams, always wanting more, while Dores would be content to be content. But Dores’ admiration, loyalty and love for Graça end up meaning she stands behind her, quietly cleaning up messes and keeping them both afloat (sometimes with extreme measures). The interdependence that develops between them advances to an absurd, unhealthy degree. Graça wouldn’t actually survive without Dores, while Dores would never have even come close to the kind of freedom and success (and joy) that she experienced in her life without Graça. Both think they are single-handedly propping up the other without any recognition/gratitude from the other. And both are incredibly, and not subtly (except perhaps to themselves), jealous of what the other has. Honestly, it was mesmerizing to read how deep into this intertwined hole they fell together, to the exclusion, really, of all other people and, at times, of reality. And yet, through it all, they created an icon, brought samba to the world, and lived a bigger life than Dores ever would have thought possible. A life that neither truly appreciated until it was too late to really do so.

This is a story of a gloriously complex relationship between two women who both need each other more than anything, yet simultaneously wish it wasn’t so. And it’s an ode to music, to samba, the music of a culture, of a nation. It’s deep and sweeping, while remaining close and personal. If you like books that you can sink your teeth into, that you can lose yourself in the pages of, then put this one on your list.

Enjoy some of the following passages. I really enjoyed the writing, like I said, even though at times it caused some trouble with the pacing of the overall story. So, naturally, there were a number of quotes I wanted to pull and share!

“When we are young, we give ourselves completely. We allow our first friends or first lovers or first songs inside us, to become part of our unformed being, without ever thinking of the consequences, or of their permanence within us. This is one of the beauties of youth, and one of its burdens.”

“Can something be called a memory if it is untrue?”

“We all take for granted / things that come too easily. / That’s why I can’t let you go – / you’re always a challenge to me. / Here’s my vow to you, here’s all I believe: / For you I’ll stay invisible. I’ll be the air you breathe.”

“Being a woman is always a performance; only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. The rest must play our parts with vigor but seemingly without effort. Our bodies must be forms molded to fit the requirements of our times: pinched, dyed, squeezed, injected, powdered, snipped, sloughed, moisturized, fed or unfed, and on and on, until such costumes seem innate. Everywhere, you are observed and assessed: walking down the street, riding the bus, driving a car, eating in a café. You must smile, but not too widely. You must be pleasant, but not forward. You must accommodate and ingratiate but never offer too much of yourself, and never for your own pleasure. If you do this, it must be secret. Any deviance from this role has the potential for disaster […] If you think I am exaggerating, or that I am trapped in a harsh past and times have changed, then listen carefukly to what I am telling you now: when you have no power in this world you must create your own, you must adapt to your environment and try to foil the many dangers around you […] The performance may cripple us, but it keeps us alive.”

“You can’t disappear if you’ve never existed.”

“Samba in the roda had mirth but it wasn’t a party; it was a lament. When you play samba in the roda you laugh at your own misery. You and your loneliness hold hands and traipse through the music, in awe of how pathetic and glorious you both are.”

“Try to trace samba back and you will find no on origin. Try to inventory its key players, and you will never have enough room on your list. Samba came from masters and slaves, from parlors and slums, from cities and plantations, from men and women. […] Samba does not abide simplification and neither should people.”

“A star is nothing more, nothing less, than the public face of private desire.”

“For some it’s easier to imagine death than to face the person who the choices and burdens of life have forced you to become. But death robs us of many things, including the chance to redeem ourselves.”

“We are all beautiful in our youth. And we are all forgiven. In the roda, there are no grudges that can’t be put aside, no wounds that can’t be healed. Music is the greatest kind of reciprocity. For a taut string to make sound, it must be pulled from its stillness. The musician plucks the string, and the string expands as it strives to return to its original place. And in this return is vibration, and in this vibration is sound. A song couldn’t exist without first having stillness. Music couldn’t exist without a steady disruption, and a continuous return to what was, and what can be.”

4 thoughts on “The Air You Breathe

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