The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles is a moving tale of a friendship that is as rich and complex as the samba itself. A story full of love and tragedy, it’s about two girls achieving their dreams and learning it doesn’t guarantee happiness.
Dores is a nine-year-old working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s. No one expects anything of her but she believes she’s destined for something more. There, she meets Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, who is clever, well fed, pretty and thrillingly ill behaved. Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music. Music will become their shared passion and the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. For more about the synopsis and author, click here.
The Air You Breathe is told from Dores’ first-person perspective as she reflects, at age 95, on her life and friendship with Graça. Even though we quickly learned that Graça passed away many years ago, she’s still the most important figure in Dores’ life. As such, in the retelling of her life, she goes all the way back to the beginning when she’s working at the sugar plantation and her fateful encounter with Graça. The story then goes into chronical order, except for a few chapters where it returns to Dores at 95 where she either gives more context to events in the book or explains what happens during the time periods not covered in the novel. I liked the check back in with Dores at 95, I think it helped break up the story and also provides compelling background.
Four key sections
This novel sits at 449 pages and it covers a wide variety of time periods and locations. While it’s not divided this way, there are four key sections: their childhood at the plantation and discovering music; learning to survive in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood and meeting their eventual bandmates, which includes Vinicius who plays a large role in the story; working in Hollywood on movies and then back to Brazil.
I explain this because the large page count for this kind of read might be a deterrent for some, but as you see, it covers quite a bit. I will say there are areas that could have been condensed and I lost some interest in the early years at Lapa. But it really takes off once Dores and Graça meet Vinicius. This meeting introduces them to the beating heart of the novel: samba.
If you’re a musician or just a huge fan of music in general, you’re really enjoy the sections dedicated to making music. I didn’t know much about samba going in and this is an extensive lesson on that style of music and how it’s put together. The author also includes plenty of song lyrics throughout the novel, which is also reflecting on what is currently happening in the story. It’s a neat touch for sure and serves the story well.
Music is what brings together Dores and Graça but it also becomes a divider between the two. While Graça is the born star with a beautiful singing voice, Dores’ strong suit is songwriting. But she also wants to be on stage so this becomes an ongoing conflict, when Dores says she’s fine staying backstage but not admitting the truth to the herself.
While their success might be somewhat of a fairytale, the author does not shy away from showing the pitfalls of success. And how overwhelming jealousy can change the course of a life forever.
This story is part coming-of-age tale and a historical fiction novel. Life in Brazil in the ’30s and then Hollywood in the ’40s are written so well with plenty of vivid and striking descriptions. We learn about Brazil’s corrupt leadership and also a bit of life in Hollywood during WWII. It’s fascinating look at those different worlds.
However, much of the novel is focused on the girls’ transition from childhood to adulthood. This includes relationships and sexuality, which also creates more issues between the two. Those two characters are complicated, flawed and selfish. There are moments where you don’t like either of them. But with every clash Dores and Graça have, these friends always go back to each other and are kept together by love.