'The Air You Breathe' Is A Glorious, Glittery Saga Of Friendship And LossFrances de Pontes Peebles' new novel about two women in Brazil — and later Hollywood — who take the music world by storm can sometimes slip into corniness, but it's a genuinely exciting read.
Every reader has her own idea of a beach book. Some want crime, or romance. Some want summer best-sellers, some want Moby-Dick. My definition of a beach read is simple. First, I want a beach book to be long, twisty, and ambitious. I want it to have a complete world. Second, I want it to have a strong voice. If I'm going to read surrounded by people, then the characters I'm reading about better be loud.
For years, my gold-standard beach read was David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which features financial crimes, Dutch trade history, evil priests, sexual longing, and an exceptional cast of characters. But for the first time, I've found a competitor in Brazilian-American novelist Frances de Pontes Peebles' historical epic The Air You Breathe. It has even more to offer than Jacob de Zoet: murder, extortion, Hollywood glamor, the entire story of samba, and, of course, sexual longing and an exceptional cast of characters.
The Air You Breathe opens with Dores, the narrator, announcing, "Money isn't an issue for me these days; I'm filthy rich and not ashamed to say so." She blazes on from there, introducing the reader to her long-dead love, best friend, and collaborator Graça. In 1930s Rio and 1940s Hollywood, Graça was famous as Sofía Salvador, "the Brazilian Bombshell, the Fruity Cutie Girl, the fast-talking, eye-popping nymph with her glittering costumes and pixie-cut hair who, depending on your age and nationality, is either a joke, an icon of camp, a victim, a traitor, a great innovator, or ... 'an object of serious study of Hollywood's Latinas." Strong voice? Check.
From her old age in Miami, Dores tells the story of her relationship with Graça, which began on a sugar plantation where Dores was a motherless kitchen helper and Graça was the household's spoiled, unsupervised Little Miss. The two bond, discover music, and pursue it to Rio, where they struggle to prominence on the first wave of samba. Along the way, they acquire a band, a protector-slash-creditor named Madame Lucifer, and a total interconnectedness, the likes of which I last found in Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend — except that in My Brilliant Friend, Elena never tries to have sex with Lila.
The novel's great emotional engine is Graça's inability to love Dores back. Gender has little to do with it; she can't love Vinicius, her bandleader and boyfriend, either. To Graça, love is an audience. She wants glitter, adoration, applause. To cope, Dores and Vinicius sneak away to write songs about her. Some of Peebles' finest, saddest writing comes through these songs, which are scattered between the novel's sections. In one, the speaker promises, "My love is sweeping our steps./My love is putting our children to sleep./My love is never getting rest./My love is fathoms deep." It's a love that Graça can't offer, or even understand.
From time to time, The Air You Breathe shares Graça's flaws. The writing, often perfect, can get a bit too glittery. Dores is sometimes prone to big pronouncements about human nature, both in her Floridian eighties and as a young lyricist in Brazil. She dives deep into what love should be, and what art should be, and she comes up with platitudes as often as she comes up with gems. In other words, The Air You Breathe sometimes gets corny.
But why not? Corniness comes from sincerity. It comes from rejecting restraint, and who wants to read a restrained novel about a fictional Carmen Miranda? For what possible reason would somebody write a spare, symbolic tale about a woman who wears neck-grazing rhinestone earrings shaped like planes? I wouldn't read that book. I read The Air You Breathe in two nights. (One might say I inhaled it.) Not only does it suit the novel to be corny, its corniness makes it complete.
In Dores' spirit, and in her name, I'd like to make my own pronouncement. More novels should be sincere. More novels should risk too-big claims, or take one plot turn too many. The Air You Breathe is genuinely exciting to watch. Even in its imperfections, it grabs your attention, like Sofía Salvador, and won't let go. You could read The Air You Breathe on the Copacabana beach and its characters would drown out the people around you. Graça and Dores were born — well, written — to entertain, and entertain they do. Move over, Jacob de Zoet. I have a new gold standard now.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.