Tuesday, April 19, 2016

ARC Review: The Art of Not Breathing

Title: The Art of Not Breathing
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 26, 2016
Source: HMH Books for Young Readers for Review

Since her twin brother, Eddie, drowned five years ago, sixteen-year-old Elsie Main has tried to remember what really happened that fateful day on the beach. One minute Eddie was there, and the next he was gone. Misunderstood at home and at school, Elsie retreats to her favorite hideout, and abandoned boathouse, where she meets Tay McKenzie, a charismatic and mysterious boy who attends, as he calls it, "the school of life." Tay and his friends are freedivers, and Elsie convinces him to teach her the sport. There, in the depths of the North Sea, Elsie uncovers memories of the day Eddie disappeared.

Funny, yet heartbreaking, Sarah Alexander's debut is about love, guilt, and the ties that bind.

My Review

The Art of Not Breathing by debut author Sarah Alexander is a YA novel that caught my eye at the mention of twins and the death of a sibling. I went in, expecting a novel full of grief and discovery. While the novel does tackle topics such as grief, mental illness, and eating disorders, I found it to be a  bit of a disappointment, and I wished that Ms. Alexander could have been a bit more focused with the plot and subplots. 

Five years ago, twins Elsie and Eddie Main were celebrating their eleventh birthday at the beach. The twins were having a good time, swimming and playing, but then Eddie disappeared in the water. Elsie couldn't find him. Her older brother Dillon couldn't find them, and their father wasn't nowhere to be seen. Now Elsie is sixteen, and she's trying to figure out what happened that day. She meets a boy named Tay, who introduces her to a sport called freediving. Little by little, memories come flooding back as Elsie spends more time in the water. She tries to piece the memories together to find out what happened to her other half all those years ago.

The writing style of The Art of Not Breathing is lackluster. The jacket summary promised a little bit of humor, but it wasn't there. There wasn't even a smidgen of humor in the pages of this book. Instead, it's a very monotonous book about Eddie's death and how it has affected every member of the family, told from Elsie's perspective. Even though there is so much going on with the family and her life, Elsie just seems distanced from everything that's going on around her, and it makes for a boring and slow read.

The characters of the book were actually my favorite part of the novel. The Main family has been torn apart by the loss of Eddie. Elsie feels gutted even five years after losing her twin brother. Both she and her older brother, Dillon, feel responsible for his drowning. Seeing how they deal with everything is truly sad. I felt like it was a great way for Ms. Alexander to handle their grief because no two people mourn the same way. There are some other interesting characters in the novel, particularly two young men named Tay and Danny. Tay becomes very important to Elsie, but at the expense of another character. These characters were all flawed in very realistic ways, and that many different teen readers would be able to see parts of themselves in the book's characters.

However, there were some characters that I didn't like. Like many YA novels before it, The Art of Not Breathing features a pair of terrible parents. I couldn't help but feel bad for Elsie and her older brother Dillon because they definitely got the short end of the stick in life. They have to deal with the traumatic drowning of their brother, but their parents just make everything so much worse. These two, once three siblings, haven't had much of a life, and then seeing how their parents react to everything just makes it so much worse for them.

I liked how Ms. Alexander tried to tackle many important issues for today's teens (and adults) in this novel, but I feel like she just included too much for it to really make a lasting influence on readers. She brings up grief, mental illness, eating disorders, lying, and family therapy. Each issue just doesn't get the focus that it needs throughout the course of the book, and it's disheartening because it could have really been something special if there was a bit more focus.

While I wasn't completely impressed with The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander, there were a few shining moments, especially the moments for which the book is named. I feel like this could easily have been a three star book for me with a few more editing sessions. If you're curious about this debut novel but not completely committed, I would recommend borrowing it from your local library to see if it's for you. 

Sarah Alexander grew up in London with dreams of exploring the world and writing stories. After spending several years wandering the globe and getting into all sorts of scrapes, she returned to London to complete a Master's degree in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in 2013. Previous jobs include: tomato picker, travel consultant, mental-health support worker and suitcase administrator. Now she works in publishing. Sarah lives in London with her husband and two chickens. THE ART OF NOT BREATHING is her first novel.

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