[3 March 2004]
Fame seems to magnify all that is wrong in our society and tends to make the sins of celebrities the exceptional cases they’re not. Besides that endangered group of individuals who will have an easier time getting through the Pearly Gates, if the rest of us could read of our sins and struggles in broadsheet or tabloid, we’d see the decline of a lot more media empires. Though the media tries its best to deliver the freshest story or the juiciest gossip, it does get tiring to read of things that will never happen to us, or about things that happen to us all the time. Familiarity breeds contempt, unless it’s interesting—which is precisely what Julie Orringer’s novel is.
How to Breathe Underwater is a collection of nine short stories that explore how members of the female sex retain their sanity in life’s overwhelming situations. However, keeping one’s composure doesn’t necessarily result in impassive behaviour. In the story “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” it takes a combination of sex, religion and some pistol swivelling to get two teenage girls back to their suburban normalcy. The characters are edgy and modern, and remind me of the girls I see on the bus who wear heavy eyeliner and small t-shirts that read “I’m a wreck” in silver glitter. And yet, whatever ordeal Orringer’s characters endure, they keep a streak of innocence that secures your empathy.
One of the best stories in the collection is “Note to Sixth Grade Self,” which contains the kind of self-berating monologue with which women the world-over are unfortunately familiar:
Stop this. They are not coming. Go inside… Don’t waste time thinking about drowning yourself. Don’t bother imagining your funeral, with your classmates in black clothes or a treeless stretch of lawn. If you die you will not be there to see it, and your classmates probably won’t be either.
This version of reality is comforting in a time where the media is awash with formidable female role models. There are a fair number of women who are terribly good at what they do, be it business or politics. If we have any more Condoleeza Rices, Shirin Ebadis and Carly Fiorinas for that matter, we’ll be setting the stake high for ourselves. Most of the time, all it takes are toxic words like “no” or “it’s over” to render us emotional heaps. But through her book, Orringer makes feelings of jealousy, loneliness, frustration and nostalgia (especially when it comes to men) okay. It happens, she seems to say. It’s all right. You’ll survive.
We’ve had our spate of coming-of-age novels and movies exploring the sweet agony of being a woman. Every A-list female actress has recently played a role in a movie to show for it. Ayn Rand once said, “If you find you have nothing new to say about your subject, do not write,” and though we swear we have seen it all before, Orringer does deliver something new in her novel. It’s a sense of female solidarity that she weaves between plots of mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins and friends. It is made possible through the writer’s ability to tap into the psyche of women and deliver those gender-specific idiosyncrasies to an audience without feting the cliché. Without this skill, the storylines could have easily been found, poorly written, in a Danielle Steel novel.
Orringer writes in a voice that is distinctly American. It is a voice that one finds in such writers as ZZ Packer and John Murray, both fellow graduates of the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The language is simple and appropriate for the reality Orringer creates for her readers. The prose is straightforward and particular. At best, How to Breathe Underwater is much like reading a scene-by-scene diary of a 16-year-old—poignant and funny with bits and pieces of gems that shine with originality. However, the reader gets the impression that Orringer wrote this book for herself and has not fully come to grasp with the significance of the emotions and personalities that feature in her book. The meal Orringer cooks up is good, but it could use some salt to make it great.