Breathless by Jessica Warman

Summary: Katie lives a less than ideal life.  Her father works too much, her mother is always drunk, and her older brother Will is schizophrenic and smokes marijuana in an attempt to escape his problems.  When Will attempts suicide, Katie’s parents decide to send her away from it all—to an elite co-ed college preparatory boarding school.  Katie, who has always loved swimming, quickly becomes the star of the team, but her problems are far from over.  She must face the drama caused by the popular girls, a roommate who refuses to speak to her, and a fervently Christian boyfriend.  There is also the fact that she accidentally told everyone her brother is dead.

Review: Breathless has received some impressive reviews commending its poignancy, honesty, and realness; it was also named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.  All this praise led me to expect a book much different from Breathless, one with something to say instead of one that related events without comment or guidance.  Breathless probably deserves the praise it received for realness; doubtless it does parallel somebody’s life (someone who attended a prep school overflowing with drama, wealth, drugs, and alcohol), but it never went very far beyond simply depicting this life.

A lot of hard issues are presented in this book, and I am sure these are what have drawn readers.  There is a broken family, mental illness, drinking, the pressure of athletics and schoolwork, drugs, smoking, and sex.  All of these have the potential to affect a teenager’s life, and they ought to be in a book.  However, I think by putting them all in a single book, Warman prevented herself from actually saying much about them.  There was too much going on and it could not all be handled in the page length.

I do not want to argue that Breathless should have been didactic.  I also understand that because the book is written in first person from Katie’s point of view during her teenage years, it is appropriate that she cannot see the ultimate outcomes of her actions and thus spout a sermon about tolerating people of other faiths or the evils of smoking.  However, it would have been much more realistic if Warman had added more consequences for her characters.  Every single weekend, the students party—drinking, smoking, doing drugs, all unsupervised.  Not a single one ever did something they regretted in their drunken state, however, or needed to be sent for medical care because they overdid it.  Adding such a scene would not have been preachy of Warman; it would have been life.

There are three instances in the book when Katie stops to think about what she is doing.  Once, her wild partying causes her to vomit during a summer camp swim practice and she needs to talk to the coach about whether she should be allowed on the team.  Once, she mentions her chain smoking is making it a bit difficult for her to breath—but she remains the best swimmer on her team and does not make a successful effort to quit.  After cheating on her boyfriend, she has one or two sentences of reflection about how she feels bad and not fulfilled like everyone says they are after having sex.

If these are the tough issues Warman believes teens are facing, she needs to give them more than that.  It is easy to see that many teens drink.  How does simply reiterating that do anything for her readers besides potentially normalizing it all?  Breathless is a book about growing up, but it is difficult to see whether the decisions Katie made are good or bad.  There are few clues to help readers decide what they should do in their own lives.  In my opinion, a good book does not simply give an accurate impression of real life; it tells its readers why things matter.  Breathless does not do that.

Published: 2009

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