Breathing Water

( 5 )

Overview

Q&A from T. Greenwood

Q: Did you envision Lake Gormlaith as a setting you'd return to in future books when you first created it in BREATHING WATER?

A: Honestly, I didn't think that far ahead. I started writing Breathing Water when I was 28 years old. I'd been living on the west coast for several years for grad school, and I was homesick. I created Gormlaith as a way of going home without having to pay for an airline ticket. It was also my ...

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Overview

Q&A from T. Greenwood

Q: Did you envision Lake Gormlaith as a setting you'd return to in future books when you first created it in BREATHING WATER?

A: Honestly, I didn't think that far ahead. I started writing Breathing Water when I was 28 years old. I'd been living on the west coast for several years for grad school, and I was homesick. I created Gormlaith as a way of going home without having to pay for an airline ticket. It was also my first novel, and so I followed all that "write what you know" advice I'd been getting in school. I knew the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. And I knew Gormlaith. (It's a very loosely disguised version of my family's own summer place.) And what happened after that, was I realized I'd created a world of sorts. A small world, but a world nonetheless. This world had not only a geography, but a history. It had people living in it. I returned to Gormlaith first in Undressing the Moon and then later in Two Rivers, The Hungry Season, and Grace. People always ask me if I ever think about my characters after I'm finished with a novel. And my answer is, "What do you mean? Of course I do." Because for me, as real time passes, so too does time in this fictional world, and I feel like I need to keep checking up on my characters to make sure they're okay. In my next novel, Bodies of Water, we visit Effie again years after this novel's summer. I suspect I'll always keep checking in on her.

Q: We've seen some of the characters from BREATHING WATER in other books as well. Who would readers recognize, and who might they not immediately know?

A: That's a good question! I think most characters are recognizable. Effie and Devin appear in many of the novels. For example, in The Hungry Season, Mena and Effie are friends. In Bodies of Water, which comes out in October 2013, we visit Effie in the present day while also hearing Gussy's sister's story (set in part at Gormlaith in the early 1960s). Gussy's camp (and the tree house), as well as the lake itself, serve as sort of geographical touchstones for me. In Grace, Elsbeth visits the island that both Harper and Effie refer to. In my mind, this world exists, and these people's lives progress and intersect. I love that I can pick up with any one of them where I left off and find a new story.

Q: How much influence does the location have on your writing now? Do you set out to work a story to fit the Lake setting, or Two Rivers, where TWO RIVERS and GRACE were both set?

A: Setting is probably one of the first decisions I make when writing a new novel. It's as critical as point of view or plot. I don't feel grounded until I know where my characters live. I don't usually set out to write a story set in a particular place unless I know the character lives there (as with Bodies of Water). Instead, I figure out who they are and part of that is where they live. But I can't help returning to this world. It feels real to me. I like to call my work autogeographical.

Q: You grew up in Vermont, so you know it well. Does your childhood there inspire your novels at all? If so, which ones and how?

A: A professor of mine once told me that Flannery O'Conner said, "Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life." I think this is true, in part, for me—particularly when it comes to place. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a magical setting. It's not somewhere that a typical reader has ever visited. (Someone once asked me what state Vermont was in. When I replied that it was a state, she said, "One of the United States?") There are many, many writers living in Vermont, but not many of them were born there. I consider myself one of the lucky few who was. There's something special about growing up somewhere. It becomes a part of your DNA. I have lived in southern California off and on for the last fifteen years, and I still don't feel quite ready to set a novel here. I still spend my summers in Vermont with my daughters; each time I go back it's like a return to my own childhood. And when I set a novel there, it always feels like going home."

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Editorial Reviews

Peter Khoury
...[P]oignant yet clear-eyed....[f]illed with careful, poetic description....The story is woven skillfully into the setting; lightning that strikes a mighty willow, for example, mirrors Max's volatile nature. — The New York Times Book Review
Peter Khoury
...[P]oignant yet clear-eyed....[f]illed with careful, poetic description....The story is woven skillfully into the setting; lightning that strikes a mighty willow, for example, mirrors Max's volatile nature.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In a first novel that strains for effect, a young woman summering in Vermont finds healing and happiness after an abusive relationship ends. The author prefaces each section with a poetic invocation that aims, it seems, to ratchet up the emotions and set the appropriate mood. But this never quite happens. Despite Greenwood's attempts to give the story cosmic values, it is essentially a schematic account of the usual: smart girl doing dumb things until she finally does wise up. Effie Greer, the English major protagonist, fell in love at college with the wrong man. Max was an abusive psychopath, but Effie moved in with him anyway and even brought him along after graduation to spend the summer at her family's camp on a Vermont lake. But then, after a terrible quarrel that Effie feels she may have provoked, Max went rowing and accidentally killed Keisha, a black girl visiting for the summer. After the accident, Effie fled alone to the West Coast, but as the story opens three years later she's back at the lake and finally free of Max, who has died from an overdose. Memories of their relationship alternate with the unfolding of the fateful summer's tragic events, but as Effie fixes up the family cabin and gets together with kin, she begins to put the past to rest. Gifts start mysteriously appearing at her door, and she soon meets the giver, Devin Jackson, an African-American artist renting a neighboring cottage for the summer, ostensibly to work. The two fall in love, of course, but Devin has hidden reasons for being there: he's Keisha's older brother who's come to grieve but has learned to love the lake as Effie does. Mutual confessions only deepen the pair's burgeoning feelings,and a convenient legacy assures that more summers at the lake wait in Effie's future. Familiar themes with a slight twist, but, nevertheless, still more familiar than not.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780758238757
  • Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 9/25/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 639,761
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

T. Greenwood was born in Vermont. She is the author of Breathing Water and the 1999 recipient of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Award. She lives in Ocean Beach, California, with her husband, Patrick Stewart.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Seattle 1994


* * * I fled. When the sun came up the morning after Max left, I was perched at the edge of the bare mattress. And in the half-light of early morning, I took flight. I ran as far away from the familiar as I could. I brought only the bare essentials and told only a few people where I intended to go. To Gussy, I muttered Arizona, California. To my mother, I said Just away, and I'll write.

    I didn't know where I was going. I only knew it had to be far from this place. I took trains and buses so that I could be certain I had left that world behind me. Through windows, I watched Vermont disappear in the distance. I didn't sleep, because I was afraid that while my eyes were closed we might change directions and I would wind up back where I had started. Every night, while the other passengers slept or read under the soft lights above their seats, I looked out the windows to make sure I was still headed away.

    I didn't stop traveling until the sky no longer resembled the one over Gormlaith that night. Only then did I stop moving, did I trust that I had gone far enough. In the mountains of northern Arizona, I was grateful for the closeness of stars. For the brand new shade of night. I stayed there for a month, thought about looking for an apartment, a job. But the sound of the train passing by the hostel where I stayed lured me back. I wasn't ready to stop.

    I arrived in Seattle two months after I left Vermont, drawn by the stories of dew-drenched grass and gray skies. I got off the bus downtown and walked through the throngs of tourists at the Pike Place Market, across Alaskan Way, and out onto one of the long wooden piers. Standing at the edge of the water, it could have been the edge of the world, and I knew I was finally far enough from home. Max thought I was in New York in graduate school as I had planned; he didn't even know that I had fled.

    Even after I had settled in Seattle, I couldn't stop moving. It had become a habit, I suppose, this fugitive life. Living alone in this city of rain, I feigned anonymity. I came and went from my apartment when I knew that no one in the dusty building would see me. In every new apartment, I became what I hoped was just a curiosity: a newspaper disappearing each morning, the smell of coffee escaping through the cracks in the woodwork, someone softly snoring. As soon as people began to recognize me, I found myself searching the newspapers for a new place to live.

    Soon, I imagined, I would disappear altogether. That eventually no one would be able to see me at all. When I first fled, I was careless. I was accustomed to people speaking to me, noticing me, touching me. I talked to the other travelers on the trains. I made up stories about where I was headed and why. But after I stopped moving, I had to learn how to fade. I was becoming more ethereal as each day went by. Diaphanous. I was losing my dimensions. I was becoming small.

    It's easier to live like a fugitive than someone with nothing to fear. Boxes get moved from place to place. After three years, I didn't even bother unpacking anymore. I dragged the boxes with me to each new apartment without even bothering to undo the packing tape. There could have been books or dime-store dishes, clothes or fragile sentimentals inside. It didn't matter anymore; I could have been carrying around cobwebs or air for all I knew.

    I was living in my third apartment in Seattle when I found out about Max. I had just moved in. At first I thought this might be a place I could stay for a while. It had a deep clawfoot tub and a view of Elliott Bay. A bed pulled out of the wall, and the ceilings were twice my height. I liked the way it smelled. I liked how quiet it was. But when you are a fugitive, you never sign leases. That way there's nothing to break. I knew moving again would be easy.


    It was May, and my mother's voice at the other end of the line sounded like snow melting. At home, in Vermont, spring was late. I listened to my own voice, raining on her from three thousand miles away.

    "I'm coming home," I said.

    "Are you okay?" she asked.

    "I want to live at the lake again. I can help Gussy."

    "You're coming home?" my mother asked softly, hopefully. "Gussy will be so happy. It's been so long--"

    "Max is dead, Mom. I just found out."

    Her sigh: ashamed relief, the same relief. I have always shared my mother's breath and shame.


    I found out that Max was dead when the university's alumni newsletter arrived. It was stuck in the narrow metal mailbox like any other flyer for groceries or tune-ups, sweepstakes promises or postcards with blue photos of lost children. It had traveled all over the country to find me: the layers of yellow forwarding address stickers a testament to my flight.

    Inside my new apartment, I curled up on the couch and stared at the glossy cover. Shiny blond coeds dissected by cartoon lacrosse sticks, hallowed halls, and impossible trees. It was something that should not have found me at all. In the three years since I'd run away, I'd been able to avoid most reminders like these. Fugitives rarely get mail.

    Near the end of the booklet, I found my own name, highlighted as MIA There were ten of us who couldn't be found. There were nine others who, for whatever reason, had also disappeared. And between us and the stories of our more successful classmates were the newly dead, alphabetized like books in the musty library where I used to hide. Bingham, Cane, Doyle, Findlay, and then him.

    It wasn't until later that day that I learned the details of his death. Of the needle that was found still stuck into the lean crook of his arm. Of the vomit that stained his chest and linoleum. Of the cats that had multiplied and then starved to death in his studio apartment above the bar where he worked and ate and drank himself to sleep.

    It was raining. While the voice of my only old friend, Tess, described with almost morbid glee the supposed color of his skin and stench of his carpet, the decay of his small life, it rained. Incessantly, gently, and I didn't cry. Instead, I hung up the phone and felt my chest heave and then fall with a vague sense of freedom. The way a child feels when the puppy who messes on the floor more than he bargained for is suddenly struck by a car. Or the way a man feels when his own father who rarely remembers his name stops breathing. Terrible freedom. Freedom tainted by guilt.

    I curled my knees to my chest, pressed my face to the watery pane of the window and concentrated on my breath. Below, on the slick dark street a bus stopped for no one and then lurched forward, exhaust rising in a cloud behind it. A girl without an umbrella appeared then, running and just a moment too late, and the driver didn't see her or didn't care and left her behind. She slumped down on the bench, and threw her fist at the sky. A ridiculous gesture. Futile and small.

    I hadn't even lived in this apartment for a full week yet. I was still having a hard time remembering which faucet in the kitchen meant hot instead of cold. Sometimes they were backwards; you never knew in the older buildings. And maybe because everything was so new, the newness of his death didn't create panic or pain. It wasn't any different than the smell of newly painted cupboards or the new view from the kitchen window.

    After I put the newsletter down, I went to the kitchen and washed my hands. I let the water run over my skin until my palms flushed red with the heat. It was almost dusk; the streetlamps had just turned on outside, casting strange shadows on the street below as the backs of my hands burned. I held my hands under the water until tears welled up in my eyes. Wrong tears, but tears no less. It was raining that day.

    When he was still alive but no longer in my life, I dreamed that he was making bread in my kitchen. Over and over, in each new apartment, I'd fall asleep to different sounds and smells and have the same dream. I'd open the door and he would be standing there busily making bread, flour on his hands and face. He always found me in my dreams and made himself at home. But that night, as I listened to the rain tremble against the window, I dreamed that I was in the elevator of this new building. I was ascending and then heard the loud snap of the cable above my head. And I was suddenly, sharply, plummeting. It wasn't as simple as begging him to stop spilling flour on the floor, as taking the hot loaves and throwing them away. In this dream, there was nothing I could do except tear at the walls as I fell.


    "Gussy is talking about selling the camp," my mother said.

    "What?" I asked, my throat constricting.

    "Since Daddy died, she doesn't have the energy to keep it up. It's a lot of work, Effie," she said. "It's too much."

    "I'll help her," I said, my words struggling past the new growth in my throat. To watch the loons, to tame the dandelions, to keep the break-in kids from staining the floors with strawberry wine.

    "It's just talk, Effie. Maybe she'll change her mind."

    "Tell her I'm coming. I'll be there by Monday."


    When you live like a fugitive, you don't make friends. There's never the danger of becoming too familiar or attached. Of course, I knew faces. I recognized plenty of faces, but they didn't recognize mine. It made me pleased, and it made me sad. I had become every face, or no face at all.

    Working at a library lends itself to anonymity, especially when you're not in Circulation. The Circulation girls all wear lipstick and stand in huddled circles outside smoking cigarettes on their breaks. I worked at the oceanography library at the university for an entire year before one of them noticed me. And even then, after the quick hello, there was a moment of uncertainty. There was the flash of fear in the girl's face that she had mistaken me for someone else.

    It was the smallest library on campus, in the basement of an old building. The small windows in the archives where I worked were level with Portage Bay. When it rained, all you could see was water through the glass. I had become attached to this place despite myself. I emptied the drawers of my desk: paper clips, gummy erasers, aspirin.

    Estelle said, "Have a safe trip home, Effie."

    "I will." I smiled.

    "It'll be nice to get out of the rain I suppose," she said. Her teeth were small, her eyes shifty.

    "Um-hum." I nodded.


* * *


    I had thought about taking a bus the whole way back to Vermont. But this time, I was going home. I was returning instead of running away. There was no need to watch through windows to make sure I was headed in the right direction. And so I packed my few boxes, mailed them to Gussy, and bought a one-way plane ticket home.

    As I waited for the bus to take me to the airport, I grew dizzy with the heady scent of freshly cut flowers in the market, each bundle competing with the next in the endless parade of impossible colors to ward off the gray. It was 10:00 A.M., but it looked like twilight. Cars shined their lights, and the streetlamps glowed eerily in the darkness.

    I've heard that this rain is enough to drive some people to madness, to their medicine cabinets, or to the tops of the tallest buildings and bridges. That these are the martyrs, the sacrificial lambs, who die so that others may be reminded of the slender distance between pain and rain.


Lake Gormlaith, Vermont
Late May 1994


* * * The bus from the airport dropped me off in Quimby. The bus doesn't go as far as the lake, so I waited in front of the drugstore for an hour for a taxi to take me the rest of the way. Gussy offered to pick me up, but I wanted to get settled in at the camp first. I wanted a little while to be alone before I saw my family.

    As we drove away from town, the road turned from pavement to dirt. The foliage became thicker and thicker, but finally through the trees I could see the blue of the lake. And then there was the camp. The paint was peeling, and the grass was overgrown. It looked abandoned.

    Gussy has always kept the key to the padlock underneath a large gray rock by the back door. It's a good hiding place, because moss crawls across the smooth surface of the stone, making it look as though it has never been moved. I found the key, and my fingers remembered the simple trick of a tug and twist before the lock relented. Then, there was the familiar sound of lazy hinges waking. The scent of the camp when you first open the door to May air is thicker than cigar smoke, sweeter and mustier than the thrill of a bonfire.

    I was dizzy with the scent of Grampa's old books and homemade candles and moth-eaten sweaters stuffed into drawers for colder evenings. I breathed the smell of the kitchen, stopping to open the cupboard doors, opening empty tins and running my fingers over the rows of spices, salt, and pepper. Dusty brown bottles of vanilla and molasses. The refrigerator was empty except for a fresh, unopened orange box of baking powder. I found Gussy's wooden rolling pin and rolled it between both hands. I remembered clothes powdered in flour and sugary wild blueberry pies. I lingered in the kitchen, rifling through drawers, so that I could hold on to the sweet anticipation of the rest of the cabin for a bit longer.

    The living room was dark; the wooden shutters were closed. I walked slowly across the floor, careful not to trip over any forgotten piece of furniture. The threshold to the glassed-in porch came more quickly than I expected, and it startled me. This was my favorite room in the camp. I would spend the entire summer here if I could, watching the lake, reading myself to sleep each night.

    The wooden floors, faded the rust color of autumn, were worn smooth with time. The metal-framed daybed was up against one wall, the sheets tucked tight. The heavy feather pillows were covered in blue and white ticking and propped up expectantly. The wicker chair, the small table for Chinese checkers or chess, and Grampa's desk were all there, as if unmoved in so many years. The door from the porch to the front yard was sealed shut; I don't remember ever using it to come and go from the cabin. It would have disturbed my grandfather as he worked at his desk if I'd been able to run in and out through the front with my muddy feet and constant chattering. By going through the back door, Gussy was always able to keep me in the kitchen long enough to dry off and calm down before I greeted Grampa.

    The air in here was warm, the sunlight pressing persistently against the closed blinds. But there was something pacifying about the stagnant air, as if all past summers had been captured there. I felt like a strange puppeteer as I pulled the strings that controlled the sunlight. Dust rose and fell gently. Dead insects lay in piles as if slumbering after an orgy of wings and stingers. I brushed them into my cupped palm and opened the neglected door to the front yard. I walked all the way to the shed and tossed their dead bodies into the bushes.

    I didn't remember the camp looking so run-down, and it was hard to imagine that the paint could have weathered so much in only three years. The grass tickled my shins. I wondered if Gussy had succumbed to a power mower yet. Grampa had always used the old hand mower that looked to me like an iron-toothed monster.

    They call summer homes camps here. I suppose it's because the houses used to be so rustic: no electricity, no running water, each with a wooden outhouse instead of indoor plumbing. Of course, over the years they've become less primitive. Even Gussy and Grampa gave in and put a toilet and shower in, had the camp wired and plumbed. I could only vaguely remember the outhouse with the crescent moon carved out of the door, the earthy smell of excrement, and my fear of what might reach up and grab my naked bottom in the middle of the night. Now Gussy's compost heap stands where the outhouse used to, chicken wire and last summer's grass clippings and garden skeletons.

    I walked across the dirt road to the bank where Gussy kept her wooden boat. The oar locks were rusty; the oars were probably inside the shed. Gormlaith was still today. The blinds in the windows of the other camps around the lake were still drawn. It was too early for there to be children and noisy motorboats; May was too cold, and the black flies of June kept most summer people away until July. I picked a dandelion from the shore and plucked the bright yellow head off. It landed in the water.

    I heard a car coming up the winding road that circled the lake and saw Gussy in her old Cadillac. I walked back toward the camp as she drove past me, waving and grinning. She pulled into the driveway, stopping just short of the shed door.

    "Effie," she said. "When did you get here? Are you hungry? Look at how small you are."

    "I've always been small, Gussy. Since I was little." I laughed as she opened up the trunk and struggled with a grocery bag brimming with green leaves.

    "I stopped by Hudson's, because I didn't know if you had planned supper yet. You haven't planned supper yet, have you? I figured you would want to get settled before you went shopping," she said, and I opened the back door for her.

    "Well, let me look at you," she said. "You're starting to look like your mother, you know."

    I hadn't seen my mother in three years. Three years can change a person. It had changed Gussy. Her silvery braided bun was finer, her body thinner.

    I smiled and kissed her quickly on the cheek. She tasted like baby powder.

    "I thought we could make a salad and cook up some of the fish your grandfather caught about a million years ago. It's just been sitting in the freezer, and I didn't know what to do with it, so I brought it along. I imagine it's still good. No freezer burn or anything."

    It had been a year since my grandfather died. Gussy called me in Seattle to tell me. She said that he went fishing in the morning, came back to the camp for his usual lunch, a liverwurst sandwich and a glass of bourbon, and then laid down for his daily nap. She said she went on with her afternoon: working in the garden, putting a jar of raspberry tea outside on a wooden sawhorse to brew in the sun. But when she went to wake him for dinner, he had already gone. She said she ate dinner by herself and then called a neighbor to take care of the rest. While I shook and sobbed on the other end of the line, she said that the tea was sweet; that it had been a sunny day. I didn't go home for the funeral. I didn't want to confuse my grief with all the other emotions that were certain to accompany my return. I also had the irrational fear that Max would be waiting for me at the airport. That he'd be standing there with a bouquet of black-eyed Susans. That he'd find me if I came home.

    As Gussy sliced the bright lemons into quarters, flicking the slippery seeds into the compost bucket with a knife, I washed the lettuce.

    "Thank you, Gussy," I said.

    "It's just fish. Your grandfather would have had a fit if we left it in the freezer forever."

    "Not the fish," I said and patted the wet leaves with a dish towel. "I mean, letting me stay here. Letting me come back again."

    "You don't need to thank me for that," she said and stopped unloading the groceries. "That's what this place is for, you know."

    "I can do some work on it this summer. Painting and stuff," I said.

    "That would be nice, honey." She smiled. "I can always hire someone to get the place in shape, though."

    "Mom says you're talking about putting it up for sale," I said and the thickness returned to my throat.

    "Oh, I don't know. It's just that now that Grampa's gone, I don't know how to take care of all the things that need attention. The roof, the plumbing, all that stuff. And since the ski resort opened property taxes have shot through the ceiling."

    "I can help," I said again. "Really."

    "Well nobody's going to buy it in the condition it's in right now. It needs some paint, the weeds have practically taken over the front yard. The tree house is falling down."

    "I'll help, Gussy. It will give me something to do," I said. I couldn't believe that I was offering to help make the camp attractive to a prospective buyer. What I really wanted was for her to say, It will always be here. You can always come home.

    "You need to keep busy," she said suddenly and started washing the tomatoes under cool water in the deep porcelain sink. "Last year when your grampa died, I had blisters on my fingers from all the work. I knit sweaters, I tore up linoleum, I polished brass and silver. Even the doorknobs."

    I imagined my grandmother, alone for the first time in fifty-one years, polishing doorknobs and tearing up the old yellow linoleum in their kitchen. I didn't know how to tell her that it wasn't the same. Because this was not grief; this was something different.

    I cut into a shiny green pepper, the seeds spilling onto the cutting board. The smell of the tomato was pungent and sweet. Quietly, we prepared a salad too big for the two of us.

    "I forgot vinegar," she said suddenly, her face dropping. "I can't make dressing without red wine vinegar."

    "I'll go get some," I said, relieved almost to be able to be alone for a minute. "While I'm at the store, the fish can defrost."


    The closest store was Hudson's, six miles from the lake. I took my old Volkswagen Bug out of the garage where it had been sitting since I left Vermont. I was embarrassed now by the bumper stickers advertising who I once thought I wanted to be.

    The sky was bright; the sun shone through the dusty windshield. Max hated this car. He said it made him feel claustrophobic, that it was made for midgets. It was perfect for me, though. I even had plenty of room to stretch my legs out. Max ended up buying a car that summer so he wouldn't feel so cramped. But when we moved to the camp we drove the Bug, with all of our things in a U-Haul trailer we pulled behind us. He complained the entire way, making me stop in Montpelier, St. Johnsbury, and West Burke so he could stretch his legs.

    At the far end of the lake, I drove past my favorite camp. I didn't know who lived there, but I had always loved it. It looked like a fairy-tale cottage. And it, like the Bug, seemed to be made for little people. The yard was filled with rose bushes that would bloom in surprising colors in early summer. Peach, yellow, silver, and red. There was a separate building off to the side that had round windows, like portholes looking out at the lake. Stained glass, in colors too vivid to describe with crayon box-color words. Near the treeline was a swing set made from old barn boards, the red paint now chipped and peeling like Gussy's camp.

    The sky and water were achingly blue. Perhaps that is why the red swing was so startling. There was never a child living at this house. I was certain of this. I longed for a child my age to live there when I was young. I imagined that if a little girl lived there then I wouldn't be stuck tagging along behind my older sister, Colette. But it had always been a still, empty swing. Now, as I drove slowly, almost stopping, it seemed to stand as a testament to a child grown quite suddenly too old.

    It was the first thing I showed Max as we drove toward Gussy's that day. Even before the lake, I wanted him to see this nursery-rhyme cottage and the red swing. As we drove toward the cabin, I pointed toward the swing. But as I motioned to it, suspended by a thick rope from its wooden frame, there were no words to accompany my gesture. There was no way to articulate the red empty familiarity of the swing's stillness. Instead, I recollected something about someone who might have lived there a long time ago. I think now that I must have lied.

    I played with her. We caught crayfish with hot dogs on the end of a stick. She had a locket with a picture of her dead mother inside. She stopped coming to the lake the summer I turned nine. Felicity. A girl without a mother named after happiness. Later that summer when I began to feel his hatred like heat, the swing became the same color as the geraniums I tried to coax from the reluctant soil. And I noticed then that there wasn't nearly as much blue as I had thought. The sky was white with humidity, the lake gray.

    I drove past the cottage and onto the main road into town. When I was little, the Hudsons actually owned the store. They were an elderly couple, both covered with so many enormous liver spots I once told my mother I thought that they were really Frog and Toad from my favorite books at the time. But both of them must have either died or hopped away when I was in high school, because the Moffetts had owned it since.

    I used to kiss Billy Moffett for hours and hours in the woods between Hudson's and the camp when I was sixteen. We snuck away to the same spot for an entire summer. I would wait for him to get out of work, and then we would ride our bikes through the woods to the junkyard. It wasn't really a junkyard, but for some reason deep in the woods there was a mountain of old stoves and refrigerators, washing machines and dryers. After we lay our bikes down on the ground, carefully avoiding the sparkling mountains of broken glass, we would spend hours tearing the appliances apart, smashing the glass oven doors, ripping knobs off the washing machines. And then we would collapse, exhausted from our destruction, and make out. We would kiss and kiss until our lips were chapped and our clothes dirty from rolling around. We pretended that we were lovers instead of kids and that the junkyard was a lovers' hideaway instead of our playground. And then he accidentally broke my nose when he was swinging a metal pole at a Freon tube. My father called his father and made him apologize to me in front of my mother, Gussy, and Grampa after I told him that Billy had done it on purpose. How else was I supposed to explain a bloodied and misplaced nose? They would never have understood our bizarre mating ritual of wreaking havoc on a bunch of broken-down appliances.

    The store used to be a one-room schoolhouse. My mother went there when she was in the third grade, before they built the K-8 in Quimby. There was still a bell on the roof, and inside there was a desk near the freezers that they couldn't get unbolted from the floor. As I walked through the familiar yellow door, I noticed a big green Megabucks machine near the counter. An ATM machine and a self-serve espresso machine. But the postcards in the stand by the door were the same. They had probably been there since the fifties; not many tourists come this far into the woods.

    The girl behind the counter was terribly pretty, probably no more than fourteen. She was watching a soap opera on the TV mounted on the wall by the window. She was sitting on a stool absently swinging her legs, speckled with scabby bug bites. The color of her skin was like the color of early summer itself. Sunshine and hope.

    I grabbed a red plastic basket and picked up a few things that I knew I would need later. An economy-size can of Off, chocolate kisses, half and half. I found the vinegar next to the diapers and motor oil. The price tag said $3. I counted the crumpled bills in my pocket and put the can of Off back on the shelf. Things at Hudson's have always cost more than in town. The Hudsons started a tradition of jacking up prices back in the seventies when the first tourists discovered Gormlaith. They were used to city prices, willing to pay $4.50 for a gallon of milk. The old schoolhouse store was quaint, and the tourists (the Hudsons quickly discovered) were frivolous.

    A man came into the store as I was trying to get the girl's attention. The sleigh bells hanging on the door jingled. He had to lower his head to avoid bumping it on the doorway. He looked like Sidney Poitier, only much taller, and I forgot for a moment where I was. In Seattle, there were so many different kinds and colors of people. Japanese ladies in the U-District, black children playing in the streets, Muslims and Hindus. Clothes like costumes. Faces like dreams. But here, in the northeast corner of Vermont, his dark skin made him look transported from a foreign land. Even his clothes and posture looked like a magazine cutout. Definitely a tourist. He grabbed a newspaper from the stack by the counter.

    "Excuse me," I said to the pretty girl whose mouth had fallen open as she stared at the screen. She absently scratched a bug bite on her shin without looking away from the TV.

    "Melissa." He reprimanded her. His voice was thick and deep, like gravel and molasses.

    She looked away from the screen and scurried off the stool to the counter.

    "Sorry, Mr. Jackson," she whined and blushed. "But it's my soaps."

    He grinned at me.

    "Thank you." I smiled.

    He tipped his baseball hat and disappeared behind the giant display of charcoal and lighter fluid.

    "Twelve ninety-five," she said and turned to look again at the TV.

    I handed her the bills and she reluctantly made change.

    "I don't need a bag." I smiled and grabbed the awkward items to avoid annoying her further.

    On the way back to the camp I thought about how I used to wait for Billy to get done with work that summer. He would watch basketball while I pretended to be shopping for Gussy. I read all of the magazines that summer. Even Good Housekeeping and Sports Illustrated. I felt sorry for what I did to Billy.


    After dinner, Gussy started to clear the dishes.

    "Stop," I said and pulled at the sleeve of her cardigan. "I'll get them later. Sit with me."

    "Just let me get them in the sink," she said and pulled away, balancing the salad bowl and the plates laced with transparent fish bones.

    I went to the porch and turned on the small lamp by the daybed. It wasn't dark outside yet, but the sun was starting to fall slowly into the water. I took off my sandals and laid down on the bed. It was as soft and lumpy as I remembered. The blanket was pilly; I tore absently at them as I waited for Gussy. I could hear her running water, washing dishes. She has never been able to leave a mess. She can't rest until everything is clean and tidy.

    From the porch you can see the ragged shore of the island. As the sky grew dark, the edges blurred, and it looked like an inlet rather than a separate place. While Gussy wiped down the counters and dried the dishes, I began to plan a trip to the island to see if my tree was still there.

    "Would you like some tea?" Gussy's voice swam to me from the kitchen.

    "No thanks," I said, and then realized it might settle my stomach. "I mean, yes. Please."

    I put my face into the blackberry steam, and smelled other evenings. I supposed this tea bag came from the same tin I had sent Grampa two Christmases ago when he was alive.

    "It's quiet tonight. The summer people haven't come yet," Gussy said and raised the teacup to her lips. Her hands were remarkably steady. Grampa's hands hadn't been steady for several years before he died. His fingers trembled with even the smallest gesture: holding a nail steady, grasping the slender handle of a teacup.

    "Do you miss him, Gussy?"

    She set her cup down on his desk and leaned back in the wicker chair. She pulled her cardigan around her and held her breath. When she breathed again, her chest fell gently. "Did I tell you how I met your grandfather?"

    "I think so, but tell me again," I said and looked away from her to the sun that had slipped away without my noticing.

    "I was sixteen then. A girl." She smiled. "Not much younger than you."

    I didn't interrupt. I was far enough from sixteen now to be sentimental.

    "He had a brand-new car. A Dodge he bought from his uncle's shop. It was beautiful."

    "What color?"

    "Black," she said. "Dark as night and shiny."

    "What happened?" I realized I hadn't heard this story. I didn't remember there being a car.

    "I was walking to school with my girlfriend, Jessie. It was springtime. I think we were thinking about skipping school and coming up here to go swimming."

    "Did he give you a ride?" I asked.

    "Oh lord, no." She laughed. "I stepped off the curb to cross the street, you know where the pet shop used to be?"

    I nodded.

    "Well, before they put in the stoplight there weren't even any signs or anything. People were just slower then, more careful. But your grandfather, in his brand new Dodge, comes down the road and doesn't stop. Just as I'm stepping off the curb he hits me, knocks me to the ground." She pulled her sweater tightly around her and picked up her tea again.

    "He hit you with his car?"

    "Uh-huh." She nodded. "And he drove me all the way to the hospital in that car too. I was out of school for six weeks. He came to see me every afternoon, parking that monster in front of my house so everybody knew he was there. A year later we were married."

    "Jeez," I said.

    I looked at her for some sort of nostalgia or melancholia, but she was concentrating on a run in her stocking.

    "The fish was good, wasn't it?" she said after a while, tracing a thick blue vein underneath the sheer hose.

    "It was good, Gussy."

(Continues...)

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Interviews & Essays

A Q&A with T. Greenwood

Q: Did you envision Lake Gormlaith as a setting you'd return to in future books when you first created it in BREATHING WATER?

A: Honestly, I didn't think that far ahead. I started writing Breathing Water when I was 28 years old. I'd been living on the west coast for several years for grad school, and I was homesick. I created Gormlaith as a way of going home without having to pay for an airline ticket. It was also my first novel, and so I followed all that "write what you know" advice I'd been getting in school. I knew the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. And I knew Gormlaith. (It's a very loosely disguised version of my family's own summer place.) And what happened after that, was I realized I'd created a world of sorts. A small world, but a world nonetheless. This world had not only a geography, but a history. It had people living in it. I returned to Gormlaith first in Undressing the Moon and then later in Two Rivers, The Hungry Season, and Grace. People always ask me if I ever think about my characters after I'm finished with a novel. And my answer is, "What do you mean? Of course I do." Because for me, as real time passes, so too does time in this fictional world, and I feel like I need to keep checking up on my characters to make sure they're okay. In my next novel, Bodies of Water, we visit Effie again years after this novel's summer. I suspect I'll always keep checking in on her.

Q: We've seen some of the characters from BREATHING WATER in other books as well. Who would readers recognize, and who might they not immediately know?

A: That's a good question! I think most characters are recognizable. Effie and Devin appear in many of the novels. For example, in The Hungry Season, Mena and Effie are friends. In Bodies of Water, which comes out in October 2013, we visit Effie in the present day while also hearing Gussy's sister's story (set in part at Gormlaith in the early 1960s). Gussy's camp (and the tree house), as well as the lake itself, serve as sort of geographical touchstones for me. In Grace, Elsbeth visits the island that both Harper and Effie refer to. In my mind, this world exists, and these people's lives progress and intersect. I love that I can pick up with any one of them where I left off and find a new story.

Q: How much influence does the location have on your writing now? Do you set out to work a story to fit the Lake setting, or Two Rivers, where TWO RIVERS and GRACE were both set?

A: Setting is probably one of the first decisions I make when writing a new novel. It's as critical as point of view or plot. I don't feel grounded until I know where my characters live. I don't usually set out to write a story set in a particular place unless I know the character lives there (as with Bodies of Water). Instead, I figure out who they are and part of that is where they live. But I can't help returning to this world. It feels real to me. I like to call my work autogeographical.

Q: You grew up in Vermont, so you know it well. Does your childhood there inspire your novels at all? If so, which ones and how?

A: A professor of mine once told me that Flannery O'Conner said, "Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life." I think this is true, in part, for me—particularly when it comes to place. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a magical setting. It's not somewhere that a typical reader has ever visited. (Someone once asked me what state Vermont was in. When I replied that it was a state, she said, "One of the United States?") There are many, many writers living in Vermont, but not many of them were born there. I consider myself one of the lucky few who was. There's something special about growing up somewhere. It becomes a part of your DNA. I have lived in southern California off and on for the last fifteen years, and I still don't feel quite ready to set a novel here. I still spend my summers in Vermont with my daughters; each time I go back it's like a return to my own childhood. And when I set a novel there, it always feels like going home."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2001

    Excellent book

    I truly enjoyed this book. It is subtle yet incredibly profound. I was amazed at how the author tied so many things together that I didn't realize would have a connection. Sad at times, but leaves you with a sense of closure and peace.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 12, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Heart-wrenching yet Uplifting- A novel of survival, hope and love!

    T. Greenwood is becoming one of my favorite authors, as diving into all her older books, having read her latest ones, which pulled me in as a huge fan--- a writer of extraordinary insight and depth, Greenwood is not afraid to tackle highly-charged social issues.

    It was nice to catch up with a few of the characters mentioned at the end of “Bodies of Water” (which I highly recommend-about Gussy’s sister) and the famous family's camp lake house in Vermont.
    Effie was the main characters, as the victim of an abusive relationship with Max. After years being away running from Max, she comes home after his death to her must-loved lake house owned by her grandmother, Gussy to rebuild her life and start over.

    Effie still fees guilt about an argument between her and Max, when Keisha (young black girl) was killed on the lake. Memories of their relationship alternate with the unfolding of the fateful summer's tragic events; however, as Effie begins working on the family cabin, she begins rebuilding her lie.

    She meets Devin Jackson, an African-American artist renting a nearby cottage for the summer. Gifts begin appears at her door and the two fall in love (he happens to be Keisha’s older brother) – so quite a past and history. As this couple bond and grieve they find a peace and love in each other, in this idyllic lake setting. Heart-wrenching yet ultimately uplifting, a novel of survival, hope and love!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2013

    Liked

    I enjoyed this book - i would have enjoyed it even more with a conclusive ending

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2012

    Great story

    Loved it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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