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How does Joyce Carol Oates do it? She maintains an impeccable literary career with several new titles every single year. She has penned over 100 books and is a professor emeritus at Princeton University after teaching writing for decades. She is a renowned expert on boxing, a world-class dinner party giver whose beautiful meals were collected in the annals of Gourmet magazine, and she writes romance novels under the name Rosamond Smith. Her new book, BREATHE, is a masterwork of grief fiction.

Michaela follows her husband, Gerard, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the wilds of New Mexico, after he has been offered an academic fellowship at a local university. When he becomes stricken with a mysterious illness, first misdiagnosed and then properly determined, Gerard needs Michaela in a way that he never has before --- and the stalwart partnership that they have created over the years is threatened by the possibility that in death they will part.

"Even with heartache at the center of this story, BREATHE is a beautiful read, a flowing, steadfast journey that will call upon your empathy and compassion in a way that is profoundly real and really profound."

In details both visceral and romantic, Michaela suffers as she watches Gerard succumb to his illness. But can death really separate this couple? Are they destined to be together forever, or is there a curse here that must be ended in order for them to find freedom in their particular paths? The scales and pathways of true love and obsessive need and dependence are explored by Oates in her inimitable style, filled with short statements and almost vivid emotional horror as Michaela tries to figure out a life without Gerard by her side.

I have always been a fan of Oates’ brand of family drama. Whether it’s whole families as in WE WERE THE MULVANEYS or the curse of dangerous families as in the story of Marilyn Monroe in BLONDE, Oates brings an emotional tenor to tales of complicated relationships and the expectations they create. BREATHE could be a partner to Anne Tyler’s BREATHING LESSONS. Tyler, with similarly staunch feelings about the deep streams of fear and resentment present in all relationships, would feel comfortable in Oates’ high-stakes world of questions that no one really wants to answer. As Michaela considers a life on her own, she is faced with the trauma of so many lives unlived and choices she may not have wanted to make.

BREATHE is a very American book. There is no ennui or chapters where you are not sure what is going on. Oates doesn’t leave you in the dark; she presents a series of obstacles to Michaela that showcase the undercutting scars that settle into every long relationship. This is straight-ahead American fiction where the hard truths are voiced and the hard facts are faced. Michaela is a sympathetic character as we watch her find unbearable disbelief in how her world is being yanked out from under her. This novel is a perfect pandemic allegory, yet it is reality to so many families and partnerships in the last year and a half.

It is hard to find a way to fictionalize the horror that so many people have been going through recently, but the dedication of a longtime prose master like Oates is the perfect scrim through which to witness one case up close, a case that everyone will experience at one time or another. Her book is about living when your dreams die and finding ways to move forward when you don’t think you can make it.

Even with heartache at the center of this story, BREATHE is a beautiful read, a flowing, steadfast journey that will call upon your empathy and compassion in a way that is profoundly real and really profound.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on September 17, 2021

by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: July 5, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0063085488
  • ISBN-13: 9780063085480