Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: Breathless by Jessica Warman

Title: Breathless
Author: Jessica Warman
Publisher: Walker & Company
ISBN: 9780802798497
Starred reviews in: Booklist, SLJ, BBYA nominee


Gifted swimmer, Katie Kitrell’s life in her small Pennsylvania town changes when her older brother Will (whom Katie’s closest to and who suffers from drug induced schizophrenia) progressively gets worse and attempts suicide. Not close to her distant, barely present psychiatrist father and her alcoholic, artist mother-- 15 year-old Katie quickly warms to the idea of being sent away to Woodsdale, a private school in West Virginia. There she can be free of her fracturing home life, Will’s increasingly erratic behavior and the town whose petty inhabitants she blames for Will’s illness. Pettiness of course follows Katie to prep school but thanks to her talent and love for swimming and her aura of new-comer mystery, she manages to score a spot in popular hierarchy and a relationship with the attractive captain of the boys' swim team. Pressure to fit in and then to succeed mounts. It’s exacerbated by Katie’s determination to hide much of her family’s story. A half-truth turns into a lie (that Will is dead and not in and out of institutions) that eats away at her. Support comes from a surprising place. Katie’s equally secretive roommate, the caustic, standoffish and clever Mazzie, learns Katie’s secret but keeps it. The girls form a true friendship filled with sarcastic but touching dialogue, sisterly bed sharing, sometimes brutal honesty and stints hiding in a cabinet beneath the sink of a girls’ bathroom. Ultimately, Katie must balance her desire to escape and find her own happiness while holding onto unbreakable ties and that which she loves. Even when it's hard to.


What’s most appealing about Warman’s debut novel is that many elements ring true. Though a work of fiction, this could just as easily be a teenage memoir. The setting of Katie’s small town PA, of prep school, even if the reader’s never been or barely experienced, Warman lets you experience both through Katie. Readers aren’t watching- they’re living. The bite of false friends, the strength of true friendships, the pangs and pleasures of first love, the pressure to succeed, the fragile family dynamic, the destructive capabilities of illness…..they are realistically portrayed. Warman’s characters are fleshed out, flawed and funny; friends and foes, sometimes both rolled into one. Breathless is honest and wrenching, a story with the good, the bad and the ugly of life.

Consider this book for a Printz honor and for a place on your shelves.

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