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The Air You Breathe


The Air You Breathe

Tales of the dark side of fame have proved fertile ground for writers and filmmakers alike, but Frances de Pontes Peebles offers a fresh spin on an old story in THE AIR YOU BREATHE, which explores the fractious relationship between Graça, a Brazilian samba singer, and her childhood friend Dores.

Dores narrates from the present day, in a voice full of loss and yearning. She’s an orphan who grows up in the 1930s as a servant on a sugar plantation near Recife. Graça is the pampered “Little Miss,” the daughter of the plantation owner. Her every wish is indulged, but her desire for love and attention is never sated. As girls, the pair form a strong if unlikely bond, which takes them from rural Brazil to a strict convent school to the back streets of Rio’s bustling, rowdy Lapa neighborhood, where they discover the joys of samba music.

Graça is a gifted, ambitious singer who quickly makes her mark in the city’s competitive club scene, reinventing herself as the glamorous Sofia Salvador. Dores shares Graça’s love of music, but she doesn’t have the same vocal talent (for her, “singing was like attempting to lift a thirty-kilo sack of sugar over my head”), and their short-lived act breaks up. But Dores has something Graça doesn’t --- a gift for songwriting and a keen sense that she’s “been born into a role that didn’t fit my ambitions.” A canny manager, she makes it her mission to help Graça and her group, the Blue Moon Band, find success.

"Like a memorable song, [Dores'] story is infused with regret, sadness and longing, in this novel that’s a testament to how our earliest experiences can determine the course of our lives."

An invitation to perform in an American film seems like a golden ticket, but it proves a double-edged sword. In Brazil, Graça is a star, but in Los Angeles, she’s only a slight step up from the “dumb Doras,” the pretty, no-name girls who populate the studio backlots. But if there’s one thing Graça knows, it’s how to read an audience, and she gives the studio exactly what it wants: a singing spitfire who adds a dash of spice to big, Technicolor, wartime musicals.

Leaning in to stereotypes offers a measure of success, but it doesn’t guarantee respect. And it certainly doesn’t endear her to audiences back home, who don’t hesitate to point out that she’s “turned into a gringa.” The group turns the insult into a lively song, but it doesn’t mask the pain Graça and her compatriots feel at being marooned between two cultures. By the end of World War II, Graça’s star is fading, and she and the Blue Moon boys jump at the chance to return to Brazil. But the long-awaited homecoming ends in tragedy.

Carmen Miranda --- the “Brazilian bombshell” --- is the obvious inspiration for Sofia Salvador, but there are also echoes of tragic stars like Mexican-born Lupe Vélez and Dominican Maria Montez, women who achieved a measure of fame in the golden age of Hollywood but were restricted to roles that played up their “exotic” foreignness. Peebles expertly peels back the layers of glamour to reveal the exploitative nature of the film industry at the height of the studio system. And as a cultural history of the birth of samba and the U.S.’s Good Neighbor policy, which aimed to improve American perception of Latin America by importing stars like Miranda, THE AIR YOU BREATHE offers a look at a moment in time with which many readers may be unfamiliar.

But it’s the lifelong, if asymmetrical, friendship between Graça and Dores that’s at the heart of this sprawling, lyrical novel. Dores, who’s bisexual, seesaws between longing for and despising her friend. At the same time, she’s trapped by her class and her own insecurities, never able to stop seeing Graça as the spoiled planter’s daughter whose job it is for her to serve. Nor is she ever truly able to accept her own talents and step outside of her friend’s shadow. She’s also largely blind to Graça’s own pain and struggles. Frustratingly, the pair never escapes their childhood dynamic. For Dores, the relationship is a zero-sum game. “When one of us gained, did the other always have to lose?” she wonders.

Graça “was not the champagne. She was the fizz,” Dores recalls of her friend at the height of her powers. Long after Sofia Salvador’s star has faded, Dores is either trying to bury the memory of that lost magic or desperately trying to conjure it up again. Like a memorable song, her story is infused with regret, sadness and longing, in this novel that’s a testament to how our earliest experiences can determine the course of our lives.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on August 24, 2018

The Air You Breathe
by Frances de Pontes Peebles

  • Publication Date: July 2, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0735211000
  • ISBN-13: 9780735211001