FICTION

Breathe

Ecco Aug. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9780063085473. $28.99. F
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While living temporarily in New Mexico on a research fellowship, Harvard professor Gerard McManus is first overtaken by a lung infection and then terminal cancer. His wife Michaela, a memoirist, keeps a vigil at his hospital bedside, overwhelmed by grief and disbelief at his rapid decline and the complete upending of their lives. Michaela’s shock and denial transforms into psychosis, as she (perhaps) imagines an alternate reality where Gerard survives. Occasionally—as when she attempts to help a student from her memoir workshop who’s in crisis—Michaela presents a front of normalcy and lucidity, but these moments are increasingly overshadowed by surreal episodes where she imagines seeing Gerard, or a version of him, in various settings. The New Mexico landscape and its indigenous gods (which Michaela finds threatening) also play a strong part in the narrative.
VERDICT Oates has dedicated the novel to her late husband, Charlie Gross, who passed away in 2019. While the characters here are decades younger than Oates and Gross, one can speculate that she drew upon her own grief in crafting this novel, which is gut-wrenching and devoid of sentimentality. Oates doesn’t pander to the reader and leaves Michaela’s duality open to interpretation. Recommended.
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