Every second I spent reading The Air You Breathe was one I spent feeling like I had a breath caught in my throat. Finding the words to describe why and how I loved this book is a struggle, but I’ll do my best. 😘
I’ll start with the narrator, Dores, who at age 95, recounts the story of her life as she remembers it, noting that since she is the only one left, the story is hers to tell alone. She was born in 1920, her mother a “dirt-poor” worker on a sugar plantation in northern Brazil, father unknown, and taken in by the kitchen staff to work in the “Great House”. Everything in her life changes when a new branch of the family moves in to the house, including Graça, with whom Dores’ life becomes irrevocably intertwined. Of course, by the time that the narration reaches the point of friendship between Dores and Graça, the readers already know Graça by her more famous name, Sofia Salvador. This is because while this first person narration is mostly linear, the pattern of the book remains beautifully complex, primarily because each chapter is headed by lyrics to a song, followed by a reflection that takes place later along the timeline than the actual chapter. These glimpses into the future are not spoilers so much as breadcrumbs, a mystery, and it is only as the story comes to its final conclusion that I was able to piece things together, things that I hadn’t even realized were hinted at in the first chapter.
The most essential part of the book is undoubtedly the relationship between Dores and Graça. While other characters, big and small, affect their lives, Graça and Dores are a team, and it is together that they strive to make their dreams of stardom come true. This is not to say that nothing ever comes between them — the tensest and most agonizing parts of the book are centered upon when Graça and Dores are separated, as is the knowledge that the absence of the other for either of them is utterly unbearable. Undoubtedly their relationship is not the healthiest one, and often they push each other what feels like too far, but that is for the most part mitigated by the fact that when the two of them work together the feeling is that they are unstoppable.
At a certain point in the text, Dores, Graça, and the band of friends and musical artists that they work with closely, Blue Moon, are given the opportunity to work in the United States, and the differences that they face there provide a an interesting contrastive lens between Brazil in the 1940s versus the US in the 1940s as far as the politics of race and culture are concerned. This is not to say that the characters did not experience any sort of racist ideology in Brazil, but the degree to which persons of different colors were segregated and treated differently in the US was a culture shock for the Brazilian protagonists, and thus may function as an eye-opener to some US readers who might not realize the different contexts within which race exists outside of our own country.
I’ve read many books that include different layers of language, where the main text is in English, but frequently words from another language are seamlessly integrated, often without a full translation beyond what appears implicitly. In the majority of these books, the second language is Spanish (such as in The House of Broken Angels) but this text is different from those in that the second language is Portuguese. I have little to no knowledge of Portuguese, so reading through The Air You Breathe was a fascinating experience as I lingered in confusion over many of the unfamiliar words, for all that many of them were cognates with words I know in Spanish. I enjoyed the extra layer that the integration of various Brazilian terms provided, both those that appeared in Portuguese, and those that were idioms translated into English.
What I enjoyed most about the novel was the fluidity of the main character, Dores, in terms of how she unapologetically engaged in many relationships with both men and women, without seeking to label any of her behaviors in any particular way, other than the acknowledgement that she has of all the labels that people who are aware of her behaviors have put upon her over the years.
This book is very insular and focused, in that it the majority of the story revolves around the protagonists and the intimate details of their life, but at the same time the narrator Dores, even as she writes of how localized the attentions of herself and her loved ones were in the past, shades in and gives context to the wider world around them, in particular the civil unrest in Brazil and how it interfaced with the world at large, in particular during WWII. While the characters undergoing the action of the story were only aware of the parts that affected them, narrator Dores is able to give the reader details of what caused those effects.
I absolutely devoured this book, and read it all in one sitting — a five-hour sitting, because it is a long 449 pages — but the length is absolutely worth the quality of the story. I highly recommend that y’all set aside a good chunk of time to really dive into the world that Frances de Pontes Peebles created; I doubt you’ll regret it.