The

breathless
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Breathless

by Jessica Warman

The one thing Katie loves is swimming, and the one person she’s loyal to is her older brother, Will. Will, however, is increasingly losing the battle against bouts of psychosis, and after he makes a particularly public and violent suicide attempt, he’s sent off to an institution and Katie to a boarding school in another state. Unable to bring herself to mention the truth about her brother, she lets people at school think that he died. As she carves out a new life for herself there, with a close roommate (the only schoolmate who knows the truth), a sweet boyfriend, and the captaincy of the swimming team, she vacillates between rejection of and yearning for the downward-spiraling brother that most people don’t even know she still has.

So far, that sounds like a fairly typical YA novel of family angst, sure to lead to tearful acknowledgment of flawed but precious loved ones and the importance of being true to oneself. Warman, however, delivers something quite different. As the story follows Katie from sophomore to senior year, it focuses not simply on her feelings about Will but on her growth in general, as her isolation at school brings her a whole new set of relationships to negotiate; she follows a real-life pattern of foregrounding first one, then another, and moving in and out of acceptance and rejection with just about all of them. Her feelings about Will shift from protective loyalty (she’s his defender against accusing parents), to annoyed embarrassment (he repeatedly phones her at school in the middle of the night), to shocked reconsideration (he holds their father at gunpoint), but even when his violence finally results in someone’s death, that protective faith in her brother is her first, mistaken response. Yet that drama simmers underneath the more immediate story of her school experiences, and Warman allows Woodsdale Academy to become a full and complete world of its own, where Katie is initially a mysterious novelty who quickly rises to swim-team star. The tight, insular school atmosphere is palpably authentic, thick with secrets and unchallengeable hierarchies and heady, risky freedoms.

Though there’s plenty of weight in the plot, this isn’t a book about events so much as human dynamics, and characterization is vivid and exquisite. Katie is achingly real, and her relationship with her ferocious, guarded, and superbly faithful roommate, Mazzie, is one of the most tender and intimate platonic friendships in YA lit. Katie’s boyfriend, Drew, is frustratingly condescending, amusingly self-focused (a committed Christian who won’t have intercourse before marriage, he proudly announces to her when he’s ready for her to begin providing oral sex), and a genuinely kind and forgiving guy.

Behind it all, though, always lurks the family life that tethers Katie, and the brother who has essentially destroyed her family (“Never have children. . . . They’ll break your heart,” her mother bluntly advises her). The book deftly handles Katie’s changing understanding of his impact, and there’s a tacit contrast between problems she has no control over (Will) and problems she could have controlled (she loses a scholarship to Yale, her dream school, by slacking off and partying during a summer program there), a differentiation that’s hard to learn save through experience. Since readers make the journey with Katie, they’ll sympathize with her choices and failures, and they’ll be glad to see, in the closing epilogue from ten years on, that she learns to find her own stability while remaining connected
to Will (“He will always be with me”). Along the way to that hard-fought end, they’ll find the boarding-school experience enviable, the family situation poignant,
and Katie a protagonist they’ll understand, support, and forgive.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

breathless

Cover image from Breathless©2009. Used by permission of Walker & Company.


[Back to the Bulletin Homepage] [Back to the Bulletin Archives]

This page was last updated on November 1, 2009.