Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater

by Jess

Hello, dear friends.  Sorry I’ve been incommunicado for more than a week now; I’ve been under the weather and haven’t felt much like blogging.  But now I’m back!  Prepare to be astounded.

My review of Julie Orringer’s debut story collection is long overdue, so let me cut to the chase: I love this book.  My life story is different from the stories of the girls in these stories, but as I read, I could feel my adolescence lifting off the page, I could smell it and I could taste it.

Orringer says in an interview with Dave Weich and Vendela Vida, “There was a point at which I knew a little more about the themes of the collection: there was a sense of loss and a sense of danger and something about young women entering a point in their lives when they’re asked to make what seems like an impossible transition.”

There are, like, a million rapturous blurbs in the acclaim section of the paperback copy of the book.  They call the stories wise, intelligent, fiercely beautiful, unbelievably good, breathtakingly good, utterly authentic, and vital.  The best part is — they’re right (or at least not far wrong).  One of my favorite quotes comes from Michael Schaub’s review in The Austin Chronicle.  He says, “More so than any debut author in recent years, Orringer proves that the kids are all right, even when they’re not.”

With the exception of the second-person voice in “Note to Sixth-Grade Self,” these stories stick to a traditional short story form.  These days, I sometimes grow tired of a “regular” old short story, unless it’s really well done, as all of Orringer’s are.  She still manages to surprise.  I especially appreciated the sense of hope or transcendence, if you will (or even if you won’t), that she ends her stories with; despite pain, despite circumstances, these characters will survive.  Perhaps it’s not transcendence so much as maturity.  Either way, it’s a powerful feeling that she leaves you with, a warm hum beneath the rib cage.

I have more to say, but I’m going to have to cut this short (I know — the horror!) because today is C.’s birthday, and I have to finish all the preparations.  Typically, his birthday involves a bit of imbibing and an unsafe amount of fire.

I’ll leave you with this (very long) interview by Robert Birnbaum and this fascinating peek into Orringer’s personal notebooks.

If you like Orringer’s short stories, get excited, because her first novel, The Invisible Bridge, was just published this month!