How to Breathe Underwater
by Julie Orringer
Nine brave, wise, and spellbinding stories make up this award-winning debut. In "When She is Old and I Am Famous" a young woman confronts the inscrutable power of her cousin's beauty. In "Note to Sixth-Grade Self" a band of popular girls exert their social power over an awkward outcast. In "Isabel Fish" fourteen-year-old Maddy learns to scuba dive in order to mend her family after a terrible accident. Alive with the victories, humiliations, and tragedies of youth, How to Breathe Underwater illuminates this powerful territory with striking grace and intelligence.
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Who are the "pilgrims" of the story, and what makes them pilgrims?
What might Ella's lost tooth symbolize?
What keeps the children in the story from telling their parents immediately about Clarie's death?
How is this story different in tone and feeling from the other stories? How does Orringer use setting, imagery, and other narrative techniques to evoke the savagery of the children?
2. "When She Is Old and I Am Famous"
Are the talented girls in "Note to Sixth-Grade Self," "When She Is Old and I Am Famous," and "The Isabel Fish" more able to cope with their circumstances than the less obviously accomplished characters in "Care" or "Stars of Motown Shining Bright"?
3. "The Isabel Fish"
What did Isabel mean to Maddy? What did Isabel mean to Sage?
Is it grief, jealousy, or something else that makes Sage kill Maddy's fighting fish?
What role do the parents in this story play in their children's lives? How is their role different from the parents in the other stories?
4. "Note to Sixth-Grade Self"
What are the mechanics of peer pressure as portrayed in this story? How can parents respond effectively? What makes some young girls better able to cope or revolt than others? Compare the role of peer pressure in this story to the peer pressure in "Stations of the Cross." Does it change when the girls are older, as in "Stars of Motown Shining Bright"?
5. "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones"
What does Rebecca represent to the Orthodox Jewish community that she visits for the summer?
How is Judaism portrayed in this story? How do religion and morality intersect, and how do they diverge? Orringer has alluded in interviews to being Jewish. How does she celebrate or criticize her Jewish heritage in her stories? [See online interview with Robert Birnbaum, Identitytheory.com and The Morning News, "Birnbaum v. Julie Orringer," October 22, 2003.]
What is the meaning of the title of this story? Does the word "care" capture the nature of family love as portrayed in the story --- fraught with obligations, jealousies, and pressure to live up to expectations? Does this title apply to other stories in the collection as well?
How do Tessa's feelings toward her sister compare to Mira's feelings toward Aïda in "When She Is Old and I Am Famous"?
How might Tessa survive --- or learn to breathe underwater? Does the story provide any hope for her future?
7. "Stars of Motown Shining Bright"
What is the narrative effect of giving a character like Lucy a gun? Does Lucy's unfamiliarity with urban violence make the weapon more or less dangerous in her hands? How does the gun change the power dynamic within the story?
Is the relationship between Lucy and Melissa an accurate portrait of friendship between teenage girls? What is the nature of such a relationship? How does it compare to the relationship between the cousins in "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones" or in "When She Is Old and I Am Famous"? How do these relationships between the teenage girls compare to the relationship between brother and sister, as portrayed in "The Isabel Fish"?
8. "What We Save"
What does Helena save of her mother? What does her mother save of herself? How will Helena's adolescence be even more difficult with the loss of her mother?
How does Jeremy and Louis's sexual taunting of Helena play into the themes of this story?
9. "Stations of the Cross"
Why do Carney and Lila behave the way they do toward Dale Fortunot, and how is their behavior similar to or different from the way the children behave toward each other in "Pilgrims"? Is there ever any circumstance in which behavior like that can be justified or understood?
This is the only story told from the viewpoint of an adult in which she retrospectively judges her behavior as a child. How does this narrative point of view affect the tone of this story and differentiate it from the other stories?
10. For discussion of How to Breathe Underwater
In an interview in which Orringer spoke of the themes of her story collection, she mentioned "young women entering a point in their lives when they're asked to make what seems like an impossible transition" ["An Interview with Julie Orringer and Vendela Vida" by Dave Weich on Powells.com, September 10, 2003]. What are the "impossible transitions" the young girls of Orringer's stories are being asked to make? What helps Orringer's characters finally "breathe underwater"? Do the girls learn to breathe on their own, or do they rely on the assistance of others?
A recurring theme in the stories is the difficulty the children have in communicating with the people closest to them. Are these communication breakdowns caused by generation gaps or by other circumstances? Are the children's deepest thoughts and feelings apparent at all to the adults around them? Would better communication make a difference in their lives?
The ages of the central female characters in the stories range from nine- and ten-year-olds ("Pilgrims" and "Stations of the Cross") all the way to the twenty-year-olds ("When She Is Old and I Am Famous" and "Care"). Do you notice a progression in the stories as the younger characters evolve into older girls? Is there a noticeable point or age at which the girls begin to lose their innocence?
How does the choice of narrative voice, i.e., first person ("When She Is Old and I Am Famous," "The Isabel Fish," "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," "Stations of the Cross"), second person ("Note to Sixth-Grade Self") or third person ("Pilgrims," "Care," "Stars of Motown Shining Bright," "What We Save"), change the tone of the stories? Does the choice of narrative voice affect the reader's ability to relate to or empathize with the characters?
How does the mother's illness or death affect each family in "Pilgrims," "What We Save," "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," and "Care"? How do the experiences of the children differ? Do Ella and her brother ("Pilgrims") find different means of coping than Helena and Margot ("What We Save")?
What images of teenage boys emerge from the stories, in particular Sage in "The Isabel Fish," Dovid Frankel in "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," Jeremy and Louis in "What We Save," Jack Jacob in "Stars of Motown Shining Bright," and Eric Cassio in "Note to Sixth-Grade Self?" How do the male characters give us insight into the actions and personalities of the girls? Why do these males find themselves in conflict with the girls?
The fathers in the stories are effectively absent (e.g., "Stations of the Cross"), helpless (e.g., "Pilgrims" and "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones"), or both (e.g., "What We Save" and "Care"), but they are all typically well meaning (e.g., "The Isabel Fish"). What keeps these fathers from paying closer attention to their daughters, or from being better able to serve their emotional needs?
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"A major new talent. . . . How to Breathe Underwater is a dark and beautiful book."
The New York Times Book Review
"These stories are without exception clear-eyed, compassionate and deeply moving. . . . Even her most bitter characters have a gift, the sharp wit of envy. This, Orringer's first book, is breathtakingly good, truly felt and beautifully delivered."
"Orringer's engaging wit, her eye for social detail, her ear for patterns of speech and thought, and her insights into human nature proclaim her a writer to be reckoned with."
Los Angeles Times
"Captivating. . . . Orringer limns the ordinary, terrifying time between childhood and maturity so skillfully."
San Francisco Chronicle
"Pure gems, rollicking along with scintillating prose and surety. Just when you think they will stop --- and lesser writers would stop --- they keep going with inexorable momentum."
"The harsh landscape in which Orringer's characters dwell corresponds to the fierce beauty of her writing. Even the grimmest of these stories conveys, along with anguish, a child's spark of mystery and wonder."
The New York Times
"Beautiful, so wise and vital. . . . It's impossible not to feel for the pained and alienated young women in Orringer's stories, and impossible not to be stunned and moved by their quests for redemption. More so than any debut author in recent years, Orringer proves that the kids are all right, even when they're not."
The Austin Chronicle
"Utterly authentic . . . the passage through childhood and puberty is strewn with dangers and roadblocks. But what [Orringer] does with those hazards in her stories is something altogether magical."
The Seattle Times
"Eloquent. . . . Orringer sifts the inexorable sparks of sexual awakening and unearths moments of brittle surprise and bitter triumph. . . . Haunting."
"Unclouded by sentimentality . . . Orringer endows her situations and her characters --- adults as well as children --- with complexity and humor. . . . She writes with penetrating intelligence and remarkable self-possession."
The Boston Globe
"How to Breathe Underwater is unbelievably good: the humiliations and cruelties and passions of childhood, sparkling fresh prose, a writer with a big heart and an acute sense of the small things that loom large in our lives."
Monica Ali, The Guardian
"Absolutely magnificent. . . . In Orringer's world, we are forced to remember that time in our lives when we had to tolerate mystery and meaningless, because, to the child in each of us, the world is still a murky --- and potentially magical place."
"Intelligent, heartfelt stories that tell a whole new set of truths about growing up American. Julie Orringer writes with virtuosity and depth about the fears, cruelties, and humiliations of childhood, but then does that rarest, and more difficult, thing: writes equally beautifully about the moments of victory and transcendence."
"Fair Warning: Once you start reading Julie Orringer's debut collection of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater, you may find yourself unable to stop. . . . Orringer's work has a glorious maturity and burnished grace. . . . Each story delivers the satisfying details and emotional heft of a novel."
"A fiercely beautiful debut. . . . Orringer delves into the harrowing rip tides of emotion and circumstance that disturb lives yet enhance survival. Her tales are tough, transcendent and so richly imagined you won't want to get out."
"How to Breathe Underwater is an outstanding collection. Orringer writes about the things that everyone writes about --- youth, friendship, death, grief, etc. --- but her narrative settings are fresh and wonderfully knotty. So while her themes are as solid and recognizable as oak trees, the stuff growing on the bark you've never seen before. . . .The moment I finished it I bought myself a first edition, and then another. It's that sort of book."
Nick Hornby, The Believer
"These stories will remind you of all the lovably flawed girls you ever knew . . . or were."
"Julie Orringer is the real thing, a breathtaking chronicler of the secrets and cruelties underneath the surface of middle-class American life. These are terrific stories --- wise, compassionate and haunting."
"Wondrous. . . . Not one of her stories leaves you unaffected; often, your heart aches from sustained and painful empathy. And yet you're left exhilarated, too, by their sheer energetic artistry. . . . [Orringer] seems to remember childhood events as if it were last week. All her stories have unexpected settings and events, yet ring so true you practically feel you're there somewhere yourself, sitting unobserved in the landscape observing your struggling fellow humans."
San Francisco Magazine
"The world of the nine stories in this astonishing debut collection is one of beauty and longing. . . . [These stories] are astounding in their ability to capture young people in all their simple agonies and joys."
The Anniston Star
"In How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer delves into the complex lives of girls and young women, and with uncommon courage and exceptional clarity she shows us what she finds: passionate, often disturbing feelings of longing and jealousy and grief; an intense struggle to make sense of the unfathomable world of adults, and above all a determination to survive. These are tough, beautiful stories, piercing and true, and they mark the debut of an exceptionally gifted writer."
"This is a wonderful set of stories, full of empathy and wisdom."
San Jose Mercury News
"Wry, poignant. . . . Such clear-eyed precision makes Orringer's debut as heartbreaking as it is clever."
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