The Air You Breathe

After I signed up for Book of the Month in early 2019, I started looking into their back catalogue of offerings, adding many books to my TBR. One novel that particularly caught my eye was The Air Your Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles. Brazil and music in the 1930s? Yes please!

First offered in 2018, The Air You Breathe was no longer available on Book of the Month, but I was desperate to get my hands on it. Last fall, I bought the paperback edition of the novel. Now that I’m reading several Latinx books, it felt like the perfect time to read it.

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
AudienceAdult
GenreHistorical Fiction
SettingBrazil; USA
Number of Pages504
Format I ReadPaperback
Original Publication DateAugust 21, 2018

Official Summary

Some friendships, like romance, have the feeling of fate.

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 Rio de Janeiro’s famous Lapa neighborhood, 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.

Review

Before I get into any details, let me just say that The Air You Breathe is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I was quite excited to read it, but it far exceeded my expectations. It is a beautiful, lyrical, sweeping novel that I’d recommend to anyone who loves music, is interested in Brazil, or simply enjoys stories that intimately follow characters across decades.

It’s been a while since I read a book that offers such a full view of a character’s life. Most of the novels I read – especially the romances and thrillers – focus in on a narrow timeframe, whether that’s days, months, or even a few years. But in The Air You Breathe, we follow Dores and Graça from their early childhood through the ends of the lives. At over 500 pages, the author has plenty of room to bring these characters to life, making them feel real to the reader. I grew to truly care for and love each of them.

Dores and Graça are such different characters, too. On the surface, of course, they come from different backgrounds: Graça is rich and is expected to marry a wealthy man; Dores is poor and orphaned, already working from the time she can walk, and expected to live her whole life in servitude. Their personalities also couldn’t be more different. Where Graça is attention-seeking, haughty, and impulsive, Dores is contemplative, intelligent, and emotional. Despite their different lives and expectations, though, these two girls develop a deep bond over their shared love of music and their similar goals of becoming radio stars.

Perhaps what I love most about this pair is how tight their bond is. They want to become radio stars together, as a singing duo. They’ll run away together, fight through poverty together, lift each other up musically. They show how chosen family can be so much stronger than blood ties. Sure, they have their arguments, but they stay true to each other and to their love of music.

Speaking of music, beyond friendship, that really is the core of The Air You Breathe. Dores and Graça forge a career in the genre of samba, and eventually Dores emerges as a key songwriter – especially lyricist – for their group. The book is divided into several long chapters, and each one begins with the full lyrics for one of the original songs Dores wrote. (In case you’re wondering, “The Air You Breathe” is one of those songs.) This is one of my favorite elements of the novel.

On top of that, I often marveled at how beautifully Frances de Pontes Peebles writes about music. Her descriptions of music are themselves a sort of music – lyrical, mesmerizing, bringing the sounds to life in your imagination. I haven’t looked into what the author does outside of writing novels, but she could make a career of writing about music. I run a music news website called Hidden Jams; I also took a college course specifically about how to write about music. It’s often so hard to truly capture a sound in mere words, and I still struggle with it. Frances de Pontes Peebles, however, seems to have mastered this skill. Her descriptions greatly elevate The Air You Breathe, especially for any fans of music who may be reading it.

Despite my love of music, I must admit, I know very little about samba. But even as a complete beginner, this novel about a samba group is thoroughly enjoyable and understandable. The way the author describes samba – how it sounds, how it’s played, the ethos behind it – brings the music to life. You can almost hear the sounds coming from the book’s pages. It’s a great way to learn about a new genre and its history.

It wasn’t until after I finished The Air You Breathe that I learned that Frances de Pontes Peebles had originally started this novel as a story about a real singer and actress, Carmen Miranda. But feeling a bit restricted by historical reality, she decided to turn that inspiration into a fictional character, and thus, Graça was born. However, the novel is told from the perspective of Dores, herself inspired by the real singer, Chavela Vargas.

This leads me to another point that I appreciated in the novel. Dores is a bisexual woman, and she doesn’t apologize for it. (Chavela Vargas, by comparison, was a lesbian.) It’s great to see a bisexual protagonist, especially in a historical fiction novel. I also appreciate that it doesn’t become a main point of contention here, either. It’s an important part of who Dores is, but it’s not her only characteristic, and it doesn’t hold her back. I love seeing this representation.

Also, in regards to Graça, I’m glad she wasn’t a one-dimensional, selfish diva. That stereotype is overdone. I love that, despite her star quality, powerful voice, and big presence, Graça has heart. She’s genuine and true to the people she loves, including Dores and their Blue Moon Band.

For their part, the Blue Moon Band – and especially Vinicius – are great. Vinicius often struggles with their rise towards fame, and he truly believes that music must remain authentic and pure. Where’s the integrity if they sell out? His attitude reminds me a lot of the struggles I’ve seen in bands I love, especially in the punk and rock realms. Different genres, but the battle between authenticity and popularity is a genuine issue for many musicians.

This review has gotten rather long, but one final note I’d like to make is how The Air You Breathe allows readers to get to know Brazil. We see two very different sides of the country, from a sugar plantation in the north – far from any major cities – to the bustling city of Rio de Janeiro in the south. These are such disparate sides of the country, each with its own character and circumstances. I’ve never been to Brazil, but this book offered a lifelike glimpse into a few versions of the country of decades past.

Final Thoughts

The Air You Breathe is a breathtaking novel of music, success, envy, love, and friendship, all set against the backdrop of 1930s Brazil. It’s already one of the best books I’ve read in 2021 so far, and will certainly make my year-end list, too. It may even be one of my favorites of all time. I’ll definitely read Frances de Pontes Peebles’s earlier novel, The Seamstress, and will eagerly look out for her next book. I’m officially a fan.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

About the Author

Copyright 2020 by Lana Gwinn

Frances de Pontes Peebles is the author of the novels The Seamstress and The Air You Breathe. She is a Creative Writing Fellow in Literature for 2020 from The National Endowment for the Arts. Her books have been translated into ten languages and won the Elle Grand Prix for fiction, the Friends of American Writers Award, and the James Michener-Copernicus Society of America Fellowship. Her second novel, The Air You Breathe, was a Book of the Month Club pick. Born in Pernambuco, Brazil, she is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received a Fulbright Grant, Brazil’s Sacatar Foundation Fellowship, and was a Teaching Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her short stories and essays have appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories, Zoetrope: All-Story, Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Catapult, and Real Simple. Her novel, The Seamstress, was adapted for film and mini-series on Brazil’s Globo Network. She is proud to serve on the Board of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. In Spring 2019, she served as Visiting Associate Professor of Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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