This beautifully lyrical contemporary novel features an elite teen swimmer with Olympic dreams, plagued by injury and startled by unexpected romance, who struggles to balance training with family and having a life. For fans of Sarah Dessen, Julie Murphy and Miranda Kenneally.
Susannah Ramos has always loved the water. A swimmer whose early talent made her a world champion, Susannah was poised for greatness in a sport that demands so much of its young. But an inexplicable slowdown has put her Olympic dream in jeopardy, and Susannah is fighting to keep her career afloat when two important people enter her life: a new coach with a revolutionary training strategy, and a charming fellow swimmer named Harry Matthews.
As Susannah begins her long and painful climb back to the top, her friendship with Harry blossoms into passionate and supportive love. But Harry is facing challenges of his own, and even as their bond draws them closer together, other forces work to tear them apart. As she struggles to balance her needs with those of the people who matter most to her, Susannah will learn the cost--and the beauty--of trying to achieve something extraordinary.
This is my first novel by Anna Jarzab, so I was curious to see how her writing style and my reading taste would mesh. At first I felt some uncertainty that the very up-front, somewhat utilitarian style of the writing would get in the way of my enjoyment. This is, first and foremost, an earnest story. It is seven layers of earnest. And occasionally (and combined with this year being the dumpster fire that it is) my sometime jaded heart can tune out of heart-on-your-sleeve, earnest tales told in an uncomplicated and open manner. When that happens, it's generally on me and I write it off as an it's not you, it's me sort of reading scenario. Happily, Susannah and Harry and I fell into an easy rhythm, as my always romantic heart will never not find itself pulled into a genuine tale of young love. If it comes with a generous helping of athletics, grit, pain, and reality, so much the better. Which is exactly what Breath Like Water does. But rather importantly, it does us one better and offers up a genuine, open, and honest treatment of mental illness. The book is blurbed by Gayle Forman, after all. You knew the pain had to be lurking around one corner or another. So, bear that in mind. Beyond this point, there be dragons.
But there is also a really solid portrait of two kids falling in love and working their individual tails off in the name of a sport they love (or possibly hate) and doing it all on top of the usual and sometimes unusual troubles associated with high school and under the gimlet eye of just the worst head coach. Seriously, he's the worst. But Susannah and Harry are the best. One of my favorite of their earlier exchanges:
Everything ends eventually, even pain. If nothing else, swimming has taught me that. "Hi!" I say. The sun is in my eyes, and I can't see his expression. "So, Fee is nice. How come you don't want her at meets?"
"We're friends," he says. "We went out for a while, but I haven't seen her in months. Tuck invited them. I didn't even know they'd be here until they showed up. I didn't blow you off for her."
"I didn't think you did," I tell him, nervously zipping and unzipping my coat. "Besides, we're just friends, too."
He stiffens. "That's right."
"So it doesn't matter who you hang out with."
"Back there it seemed like it did a little."
"It doesn't. But you should let her see you swim," I say, because I really am so proud of him, of how good he is when he lets himself be. "Everyone who loves you should see you in the water."
"Okay," he says, looking sort of confused. "Maybe."
I pat his arm in a friendly way. "See you later, Harry."
My heart falls out of my chest and splatters onto the sidewalk like a water balloon. I wish he would go back to calling me Susie. But the thing that really breaks me is the realization that he touched my right shoulder, not my left, because the left is the one that always gives me trouble.
Harry would never knowingly hurt me, not even to stop me from walking away.
This scene showcases how right Anna Jarzab gets it when she's writing these two in the moment, in dialogue, when everything matters so much to both characters and so many important things go unsaid or happen beneath the surface. I loved it. Because the truth is, Breath Like Water is the kind of story I am always here for. If you liked Ellen Emerson White's A Season of Daring Greatly or basically anything by Chris Crutcher, it's worth your time to check this one out. Breath Like Water is out today!