cover image The Air You Breathe

The Air You Breathe

Frances de Pontes Peebles. Riverhead, $26 (464p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1099-8

Peebles (The Seamstress) presents a captivating if occasionally overstuffed portrait of friendship. Both born in Brazil in 1920, Dores and Graca are from different stations and have different gifts: Dores is an intensely intelligent and ambitious orphan who works as a servant on a sugar plantation; Graca is the plantation owner’s charismatic and beautiful daughter, who has a remarkable singing voice. After forming a bond over music, the two girls begin to write samba songs together and form a successful partnership. But their relationship is fraught with jealousy and frustration and eventually fractures. The book is narrated from the present day, with Dores’s recollections conveying the increasingly complex nature of the friendship as they pursued fame: codependency, mutual envy, their love for the same man, and (eventually) the revelation of Dores’ unrequited love for Graca. This structure allows for a wealth of detail, but the action often slows to a plodding pace, and Peebles is prone to prosaic explanations of the characters’ evolving relationship. Despite this, Dores’s reflections on love, music, envy, and loyalty ache with feeling, and a hint of mystery surrounding the central relationship’s dissolution will keeps readers intrigued until the end. (Aug.)