The transition from childhood to adulthood is scary, awkward, silly, and intense. Any writer worth her salt knows to exploit this life period in at least one story, and Julie Orringer has done us even better with an entire collection of short stories filled with teenage angst and real life drama. How to Breathe Underwater is about growing up and learning hard life lessons. It's for women who remember what it was to be a girl and girls who will soon become women.
None of the nine stories included in this collection are "happy," per se. While some might be considered more uplifting than others, they all reveal a grim reality, describe the aftermath of a tragedy, or force the character through a rough life moment. Touching on cancer, family dynamics, young lust and love and loss, fitting in with peers, religion, addiction, and racism, HTBU was no dainty stroll in the park. Most of the stories are heavy, with only brief forays into lightness. Any humor is dark and dry, which I appreciate.
My favorite story, "Note to 6th Grade Self," reads like a letter written from a future self to a young girl in the midst of finding out who her friends are and aren't. I liked the unique form and rooted for that little sixth grader the whole way through, even though I knew she couldn't come out on top. I also enjoyed "The Isabel Fish," the story I felt was most complete and whole, something that could be developed into a full length novel. In that one, Maddy literally learns how to breathe underwater by taking scuba lessons. She's also coping with the death of her brother's girlfriend, who drowned when her car crashed in the local pond.
This book got many positive reviews--it's a solid read, full of interesting characters, strange yet relatable plots, and clean writing--but several readers aren't on board with the sober subject matters or the bleak ends many of the stories have. I personally like when a story ends unsatisfactorily: that's the way life is sometimes. Sure, I don't want everything I read to depress me, but I'm not going to fault a writer for walking that path.