I feel like I’ve been waiting for this book to find me for the longest time. I first heard of How to Breathe Underwater, the short story collection of Julie Orringer, when a reader of this blog mentioned it: Since I liked short stories so much, what did I think of Orringer’s, as I’d presumably read them? I haven’t read them then, but despaired that particular despair when a book won’t seem to ever reach this country — I would read up on the author, see snippets of stories, and grumbled because it was so good. And then I saw it at Fully Booked, and I wept, and I ran away with it.
And so, now, I can answer that reader’s question: I think Julie Orringer is one of the finest short story writers I have ever had the pleasure to read.
I read this collection in one sitting — nine stories in all — because I had a feeling that Orringer was best taken in large, steady doses. [A feeling, I know, drawn from the reputation that preceded her — I am aware, too, that I wanted to judge her, haha, and I figured this was best done with a couple of hours dedicated to only her.] Well, it was a good decision. The collection read verra well — all cohesive and organic — and it flaunted its strength: Language that was sharp, precise, not a word out of place, and lyrical, too; stories that are moving, compelling; characters, characters, characters — their histories, their feelings, their thoughts, their actions. And one of the best things, really, is that I witnessed Orringer’s range.
For a collection of stories that dealt, mostly, with — to borrow a Munro title — “the lives of girls and women,” Orringer displays remarkable range. This is a collection about girlhood, adolescence, young womanhood — but Orringer never romanticizes, never dramatizes, and thus, lends a dignity and a stark realness to these lives.
Our characters’ preoccupations: from dealing with a parent’s unorthodox cancer treatments, as with “Pilgrims” — family and strangers, family politics from a point of view of innocence and coerced-burgeoning maturity; to rivalry between the ugly-duck talented girl and her supermodel cousin, as with “When She Is Old and I Am Famous:” All our lives, she has understood her advantage over me and has exercised it at every turn. When I pass her billboard in town I can feel her gleeful disdain. No matter how well you paint, she seems to say, you will remain invisible next to me.
What happens when a drug addict is tasked to babysit her niece? What happens when a young girl accompanies her dying mother to Disneyland to meet an old flame? What — via an homage Lorrie Moore to Lorrie Moore in “Note to Sixth Grade Self” — happens when your average teenage girl lives a life of closeted talent, mutely existing among mean girls, getting to dance with the first boy she ever loved, who would never talk to her in the more telling venue of, say, a school hallway?
Because most of these main characters are children, or adolescents, they have the perspective of one who isn’t supposed to see. A young girl’s thoughts: This is what dying meant . . . everything that had been you, leaving. That, coupled with that near-quicksilver changes in disposition, even world view, so particular to this age — and these characters’ disarming wisdom, their vulnerability, even the recklessness of their bravery given their refusal to realize how fragile they are: Vivid and finely tuned characterizations from an expertly executed standpoint, therefore, great fiction.
[How did I ever survive girlhood? Then again, that’s moot because I would never have written about it this well then. Come to think of it, I am too scarred by those years to even write about it now, haha.]
It takes a writer of Julie Orringer’s sensitivity and talent to encapsulate the horrors of those years with, well, with grace and intensity, with an empathy for the misfit [either the innately awkward, or those forced into the state], with subtlety and knowing dignity, and with respect to these young girls and their heartaches.
The best part — for me, as Orringer makes sure that the action exists solely in these years, though this those not mean that we can’t project, no? I cannot help it, as she made her characters too alive — is that gut feeling that, well, these girls are going to grow up just fine. Bruised here and there, but — to take this cheesiness further — better because of it.
I imagine myself sitting on this ledge with Aïda, when she is old and I am famous. She will look at me as if I take up too much space, and I will want to push her into the Arno. But perhaps by then we will love ourselves less fiercely. Perhaps the edges of our mutual hate will have worn away, and we will have already said the things that need to be said.
The photo above is from Julie Orringer’s notebooks, reproduced in the Knopf Authors website. This is from a draft of the story, “The Isabel Fish,” which is an awesome and gritty story of sibling hatred borne of a tragedy. Also: Mmm, notebooks, and Mmm, handwritten first drafts.