"Enveloping...Peebles understands the shifting currents of female friendship, and she writes so vividly about samba that you close the book certain its heroine's voices must exist beyond the page." -People
The story of an intense female friendship fueled by affection, envy and pride--and each woman's fear that she would be nothing without the other.
Some friendships, like romance, have the feeling of fate.
Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music.
One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes--and haunt their memories.
Traveling from Brazil's inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Rio de Janeiro's famous Lapa neighborhood, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship--its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses--and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
Time is short and the water is rising.
This is what one of Sofia Salvador’s directors—I can’t recall his name—used to shout before he’d start filming. Each time he said it, I imagined all of us in a fishbowl, our hands sliding frantically along the glass sides as water crept above our necks, our noses, our eyes.
I fall asleep listening to our old records and wake with my mouth dry, my tongue as rough as a cat’s. I pull the handle of my La‑Z‑Boy and, with a jolt, am sitting upright. A pile of photos rests in my lap.
I own the most famous photograph of Sofia 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 even, as one researcher anointed her, “an object of serious study of Hollywood’s Latinas.” (Is that what they’re calling us now?) I bought the original photo and its negative at auction, paying much more than they were worth. Money isn’t an issue for me these days; I’m filthy rich and am not ashamed to say so. When I was young, musicians had to pretend that success and money didn’t matter. Ambition, in a sambista and especially in a woman, was seen as an unforgivable fault.
In the photo, taken in 1942, Sofia Salvador wears the pixie cut she made famous. Her eyes are wide. Her lips are parted. Her tongue flicks the roof of her mouth; it is unclear if she is singing or screaming. Earrings made to resemble life‑sized hummingbirds—their jeweled eyes glinting, their golden beaks sharp—dangle from her ears. She was vain about her lobes, worried they would sag under the weight of her array of earrings, each one more fantastical than the next. She was vain about everything, really; she had to be.
In the photograph she wears a gold choker, wrapped twice around her neck. Below it are strand upon strand of fake pearls, each one as large as an eyeball. Then there are the bracelets—bands of coral and gold—taking up most of her forearms. At the end of each day, when I’d take those necklaces and bracelets off her and she stopped being Sofia Salvador (for a moment, at least), Graça flapped her arms and said, “I feel so light. I could fly away!”
Graça drew Sofia’s dark eyebrows arched so high she always looked surprised. The mouth—that famous red mouth—was what took her the longest to produce. She lined beyond her lips so that, like everything else, it was an exaggeration of the real thing. Who was the real thing? By the end of her short life, even Graça had trouble answering this question.
The picture was taken for Life magazine. The photographer stood Graça against a white backdrop. “Pretend you’re singing,” he ordered. “Why pretend?” Graça replied.
“I thought that’s all you knew how to do,” the photographer shot back. He was famous and believed his fame gave him the right to be nasty.
Graça stared. She was very tired. We always were, even me, who signed Sofia Salvador’s name to hundreds of glossy photos while Graça and the Blue Moon boys endured eighteen‑hour days of filming, costume fittings, screen tests, dance rehearsals, and publicity shoots for whatever her latest movie musical was. It could have been worse; we could have been starving like in the old days. But at least in the old days we played real music, together.
“Then I will pretend to respect you,” Graça said to that fool photographer. Then she opened her mouth and sang. People remember the haircut, the enormous earrings, the sequined skirts, the accent, but they forget her voice. When she sang for that photographer, his camera nearly fell from his hands.
I listen to her records—only our early recordings, when she sang Vinicius’s and my songs—and it is as if she is still seventeen and sitting beside me. Graça, with all of her willfulness, her humor, her petty resistances, her pluck, her complete selfishness. This is how I want her, if only for the span of a three‑minute song.
When the song ends, I’m exhausted and whimpering. I imagine her here, nudging me, bringing me back to my senses.
Why the hell are you upset, Dor? Graça chides. At least you’re still around.
Her voice is so clear, I have to remind myself she isn’t real. I have known Graça longer in my imagination than in real life.
Who wants real life? Graça asks, laughing at me. (She is always laughing at someone.)
I shake my head. After all this time—ninety‑five years, to be exact— I still do not know the answer.
My current life is a dull jumble of walks along the beach chaperoned by a nurse; trips to the grocery store; afternoons in my office; evenings listening to records; tedious hours spent tolerating a steady stream of physical therapists and doctors with their proclamations and humorless devotion. I live in a vast house surrounded by paid help. Once, long ago, I wished for such ease.
Be careful what you wish for, Dor.
It’s too late to be careful now, amor.
Now, I wish for the early, chaotic part of my life—those first thirty or so years—to return to me, even with its cruelty, its sacrifice, its missteps, its misdeeds. My misdeeds. If I could hear my life—if I could put it on a turntable like a worn‑out LP—I’d hear samba. Not the boisterous kind they play during Carnaval. Not one of those silly marchinhas, as short‑lived and vapid as bubbles. And not the soft‑spoken, romantic sort, either. No. Mine would be the kind of samba you’d find in a roda: the kind we played in a circle after work and a few stiff drinks. It begins quite dire‑sounding, perhaps with the lonely moan of a cuíca. Then, ever so slowly, others join the roda—voices, guitars, a tamborim drum, the scratch of a reco‑reco—and the song begins to claw its way out of its lowly beginning and into something fuller, thicker, darker. It has all of the elements of a true samba (though not necessarily a great one). There is lament, humor, rebelliousness, lust, ambition, regret. And love. There is that, too. It is all improvisation, so if there are mistakes I must move past them and keep playing. Beneath it all, there is the ostinato—the main groove that never varies, never wavers. It keeps its stubborn pace; the beat that’s always there. And here I am: the only one left in the circle, conjuring voices I have not heard in decades, listening to a chorus of arguments I should never have made. I have tried not to hear this song in full. I have tried to blot it out with drink and time and indifference. But it remains in my head, and will not stop until I recall all of its words. Until I sing it out loud, from beginning to end.
THE SWEET RIVER
Share this bottle with me,
share this song.
The years have hardened my heart.
Drink will loosen my tongue.
Come, walk with me,
to the places I once loved.
Man made the fire
to burn the fields of cane.
God made music
to take away my pain.
I come from a land
where sugar is king and the river is sweet.
They say a woman drowned there,
her ghost haunts the deep.
Sit beside me now, at the riverbank
hear my voice, loud and strong.
Wade into these sweet waters with me,
let me open your heart with a song.
Now we’re both pulled under, friend,
singing the same refrain:
Dive back, again, to the place you once loved
and you’ll find it’s never the same.
Man made the fire
to burn the fields of cane. God made music
to take away my pain.
THE SWEET RIVER
It would be better to begin with Graça—with her arrival, with our first meeting. But life isn’t as orderly as a story or a song; it does not always begin and end at compelling points. Even before Graça’s arrival, even as a small child, I sensed that I’d been born into a role that didn’t fit my ambitions, like a stalk of sugarcane crammed into a thimble.
I survived my own birth, a true feat in 1920 if you were born to a dirt‑poor mother living on a sugar plantation. The midwife who delivered me told everyone how surprised she was that such a hearty girl could’ve come from my mother’s tired womb. I was her fifth and final child. Most women who worked on the plantation had ten or twelve or even eighteen children, so my mother’s womb was fresher and younger than most. But she was not married and never had been. All of my long‑lost brothers and myself—I was the only girl in our lot—had different fathers. This made my mother worse than a puta in many people’s minds, because at least a puta had the sense to charge for her services.
I didn’t dare ask about my mother, afraid of what I might hear and not willing to risk a beating; I was not allowed to ask any questions at all, you see. No one spoke of her, except to insult me. They said I was big‑boned, like her. They said I had a temper, like her. They said I was ugly as sin, like her, except I did not have scars covering my arms and face from the cane. She was, for a little while at least, a sugarcane cutter—one of a handful of women who could stomach the work. But the insult that came up the most was the one about her easy way with men. If I didn’t use enough salt to scrub blood from the plantation’s cutting boards, or if I stopped stirring the infernally hot jam on the stove for even a second, or if I was too slow bringing Cook Nena or her staff ingredients from the pantry or garden, I was smacked with a wooden spoon and called “puta’s girl.” So I came to know my mother through all of the things people despised about her, and about me. And I realized, though I could not articulate it clearly as a child, that people hated what they feared, and so I was proud of her.
The midwife took pity on me, being such a healthy baby, and instead of smothering me, or throwing me in the cane for the vultures pick at, or giving me to some plantation owner to raise like a pet or a slave (all common practices back then for girl children without families), she gave me to Nena, the head cook on the Riacho Doce plantation. There were hundreds of cane plantations along the coast of our state of Pernambuco, and Riacho Doce was one of the largest. In good times, when sugar prices were high, Cook Nena led a staff of ten kitchen maids and two houseboys. Nena was as full‑breasted as a prize rooster and had hands as large and as lethal as her cast‑iron frying pans. The Pimentel family owned Riacho Doce and were the masters of its Great House, but Nena ruled in the kitchen. This is why no one objected when, after the midwife brought me, naked and wailing, to Nena, the cook decided to raise me as her kitchen girl.
Everyone in the Great House—maids, laundresses, stable boys, houseboys—went to Nena’s kitchen to get a look at me. They freely remarked on my rosy skin, my long legs, my perfect feet. A day later, I stopped drinking the goat’s milk Nena gave me in a bottle. Nena visited a local wet nurse and I spat the woman’s teats from my mouth. I was too young to eat manioc porridge but Nena tried to feed it to me anyway. I spat that out, too, and soon turned shriveled and yellow‑skinned like an old crone. People said I’d been cursed by the evil eye. Olho mau, they called it, olho gordo. Both are different names for the same bad luck.
Nena went to Old Euclides for help. Euclides was wrinkled, gossipy, and the color of blackstrap scraped from the sugar mill’s vats. He’d worked at R iacho Doce longer than Nena had, first as a stable boy and then as its groundskeeper. He had a donkey who’d given birth and lost her foal but not her milk. Nena took me to the stables and held me straight to that jega’s teat, and I drank. I drank that jega’s milk until I was fat and strong again. My color changed; I was less like a rose and more like that donkey’s tan coat. My hair grew in thick. After that, I was called Jega.
In people’s superstitious and backward minds, the girl I became was inextricably linked to the mother’s milk I’d drunk.
“Jega’s as dumb as an ass,” the houseboys teased.
“Jega’s as stubborn as an ass,” the kitchen maids complained.
“Jega’s as ugly as an ass,” the stable boys said when they felt spiteful.
They all wanted me to believe it. They wanted me to become that Jega. I would never give them that satisfaction.
The Great House sat on a hill. You could stand on its pillared front porch and see nearly all of Riacho Doce’s workings: the main gate, the mill with its blackened smokestack, the horse and donkey stables, the administrator’s house, the carpenter’s shed, the old manioc mill, a small square of pasture and corn, the distillery and warehouses with their thick iron doors. And you could see the brown line of water that gave Riacho Doce its name, although it was much wider than a creek and its waters were not sweet.
Every plantation had a ghost story and ours was no different: a woman had drowned in the creek and lived there still. Some said she was killed by a lover, others said a master, others said she killed herself. They said you could hear her at night, under the waters, singing for her lost love or trying to lure people into the waters and drown them to keep her company; the story depended on whether you believed in the kind ghost or the vengeful one. R iacho Doce’s mothers told their chil‑ dren this before bed, and it kept them away from the river. I heard the ghost’s story from Nena.
Behind the Great House was an orchard, and behind that the low‑ roofed slaves’ senzalas that had been converted into servants’ quarters. Nena and I were the only staff allowed to sleep in the Great House it‑ self, which set us apart from the rest of the servants. This special status didn’t affect Nena as much as it did me. I was Jega—the lowest soul in the strict hierarchy of the Great House—and the maids and houseboys were determined to remind me of this fact. They slapped me, pinched my neck, cursed and spat at me. They thwacked me with wooden spoons and greased the staff doorway with lard to make me slip and fall. They locked me in the foul‑smelling outhouse until I kicked my way out. Nena knew about these pranks but didn’t stop them.
“That’s the way a kitchen is,” Nena said. “You’re lucky the boys aren’t trying to get under your skirts. They will soon enough. Better learn to fight them now.”
Nena always issued such warnings to me:
Better keep your head down.
Better stay out of sight.
Better make yourself useful.
If I failed to heed her warnings she beat me with a wooden spoon, or an old bullwhip, or with her bare hands. And while I feared these beatings I didn’t think them odd or bad; I knew no other kind of affection, and neither did Nena. She used her fists to teach me things she couldn’t articulate, lessons that would keep me alive. Nena could keep me safe in her kitchen but nowhere else. I was a creature without family or money. I was another mouth to feed. And, even worse, I was a girl. At the owners’ whim, I could be thrown out of the Great House and left to fend for myself in that sea of sugarcane. And what did an ugly little girl have to offer the world but her body? So I had to learn to defend that body ruthlessly against any stable boys or millworkers or others who might try to use it roughly. And, at the same time, I had to learn how to make myself useful within the house, to obey my patrons at all costs or, better yet, stay out of their sights completely. As long as I was invisible, I was safe.
So while little girls like Graça were playing with dolls and dresses, I learned to play other kinds of games. Games where force was power, and where cleverness meant survival.
When I was nine years old, the world’s great financial crash hit Brazil and sugar became as valuable as dirt. Smaller plantations near R iacho Doce boarded up their Great Houses and put workers out of their gates. Riacho Doce’s mill closed. After getting into crippling debt, the Pimentel family moved away. There were rumors of a sale. Soon afterward, the cane cutters left to work on other plantations that had weathered the crisis. The fields were abandoned. The distillery was locked. One by one, the housemaids and kitchen girls and stable boys left. Soon, only Nena, Old Euclides, and I were left.
“They’ll be back,” Nena said of the Pimentels. “No one leaves their land. And when they do come back, they’ll remember who was loyal and who wasn’t.”
Nena was driven by loyalty and fear. She and Old Euclides were born on Riacho Doce before slavery had been banned in Brazil in 1888, and had stayed on even after they were freed. During the abandonment, Old Euclides took care of the grounds, making sure no one took animals from the stables or stole fruit from the orchard. Nena wouldn’t let her copper pots and iron pans fall into the hands of looters or bill collectors so she hid anything of value. Porcelain dining sets, silver platters and tureens, pure gold cutlery, a bowl made of mother‑of‑pearl were stashed under the Great House’s floorboards. We ate whatever food was left in the pantry and then, because none of us had been paid since the Pimentels left, began to trade at the local market. Eggs for flour, star fruit from the orchard for a bit of salted meat, bot‑ tles of molasses for beans. These were lean times but not unhappy ones. Not for me.
For many months the Great House was empty and I spent my days inside it. I skipped across its stone floors. I slipped my hands under dust covers and felt cool marble, the slopes and curves of table legs, the gilded bevels of mirrors. I pulled books from shelves and opened them wide to hear their bindings snap. I walked proudly up and down the wide wooden staircase, like I imagined the lady of the house would. For the first time in my nine years of life, I had the luxury of time and freedom—to explore, to pretend, to play without fear of being hit or scolded, to live without the constant worry that I would be cast out of R iacho Doce for some small infraction. I was allowed to be a child, and began to believe that I would always have such freedom. I should have known better.
One day, as I sat in the library and tried to decode the mysterious symbols inside the Pimentels’ books, I heard a terrible growling outside. It sounded as if there was a giant dog snarling at the Great House gate. I ran to Nena, who opened the front door.
A motorcar rumbled outside the front gate. Old Euclides scrambled, suddenly as spry as a puppy, down the drive and pushed open the gate. The car stopped and a man emerged from the driver’s side. He wore a hat and a long canvas coat to protect his suit. He opened the passenger and back doors. Two women emerged: a pale one also wearing a driving coat, and another in a maid’s striped uniform and lace cap. The maid attempted to tug something from the backseat. There was a hiss and a screech. For a moment, I believed there was an animal in the car—a cat or some kind of possum—until I saw the maid’s hands wrapped around two tiny feet in patent leather boots. The boots kicked free of the maid’s grip. The woman wedged herself deeper into the car’s doorway. Then there were screams, grunts, a swirl of white petticoats and, finally, a cry. The maid jumped from the automobile’s backseat, her eyes watering, her hand pressed to a fresh scratch on her face.
“Leave her inside!” the man snapped. “She’s old enough to climb out herself.”
The maid nodded, her hand still clamped to her face. The other woman sighed and unbuttoned her canvas driving coat, revealing a silk dress and a tangle of pearls at her neck.
A halo of red curls surrounded her face. Her skin was what we called “mill white” because that was the prized color of sugar. The sugar we used in the Great House kitchen was the mill’s seconds—raw and muddy‑colored, not white but not quite brown, just like me.
“It’s better she doesn’t come outside,” the man said, staring at the dirt road. “She’ll get herself filthy.” He had darker coloring, a square jaw, and a Roman nose that sloped like an arrow pointing at his full mouth.
“We’ll all have to get used to a little dirt from now on,” the mill white woman replied, and her lips pursed as if she was holding back laughter, as if she’d told herself a naughty joke.
At the mention of dirt, a girl my own age wiggled from the backseat. She wore a dress the color of butter, and white gloves. A bow sat crookedly atop her head; the girl snatched it from her hair and flung it to the ground. She kicked at the dirt, scuffing her boots, and then glared at the adults around her, daring them to tell her to stop. Then she saw me, and stood still. To her, I was not invisible.
Her eyes were the color of cork. Her mouth looked as if it had been painted onto her face, like a doll’s. I don’t know how long we stared at each other; I only remember not wanting to break first, determined not to let her win.
Still staring at me, the girl pressed her gloved hand to the car’s body and dragged it across the entire side. Then she raised her hand. The glove’s palm was as red as the earth under my bare feet. The girl smirked, as if sharing a joke, but I knew she didn’t intend to amuse me. Gloves were for the rich. They were expensive and delicate. Some poor laundress would have the unenviable task of trying to clean that soiled glove, so small it would bunch in her hands and make her knuckles scrape against the washboard until they bled. But the girl didn’t care about the glove, or the laundress, or anything. She would ruin something perfectly good, for no reason at all. I felt both respect and revulsion.
“Graça!” the man shouted.
The man and woman bickered. Nena, Old Euclides, and I kept very still, waiting for them to acknowledge our presence. Only when they needed help did we become flesh‑and‑blood to them—the man ordered Euclides to get the bags from the car’s trunk; the pale woman dropped her driving coat into Nena’s arms. This is when I knew that those people were not visitors but owners, come to claim Riacho Doce and the Great House for themselves.
They were also Pimentels—cousins of the previous owners. As we walked through the Great House together, Senhora Pimentel moved languidly alongside her husband, looking tired as she pointed out leaks and cracks, peeling paint and rotted wood. Her husband, Senhor Pimentel, yanked dust covers from the furniture, like a magician revealing his trick.
“I remember my grandfather using this desk!” he cried. And, later, “I was the one who spilled ink on this chair!”
The giddy freedom I’d felt over several months leaked away in the single hour after those new Pimentels arrived. All of the books I’d slipped from the shelves, all of the ivory and glass knickknacks I’d polished and stroked, all of the tables I’d hidden under, pretending I was in a tent in some exotic land, all of the mirrors in which I’d studied myself, would never again be mine to play with. I would once again have to be useful and invisible, to obey or be cast away. When her parents weren’t looking, the cork‑eyed girl stuck out her tongue at me. It was as pink and slick as a jambo fruit. I had the urge to bite off its tip.
Finally, the new Pimentels pulled the covers from two armchairs and sat, exhausted, in the formal sitting room. They ordered Nena to make coffee. We raced to the kitchen, where Nena grabbed my arm and told me to get the last, precious beans she’d hidden under her cot. Back upstairs, I peeked through the slatted door of the sitting room as Nena served coffee to the new Pimentels. They waited to drink until she’d left the room; I did not follow her to the kitchen.
Senhor Pimentel took a sip from his cup and made a face. “Did she use an old sock to strain this?” he asked.
Senhora Pimentel shook her head. “We’ll have to train a new staff. How exhausting.”
“Nena’s a good cook—you’ll see. She’s been here since I was a kid,” Senhor Pimentel replied.
“You think she and the old man had that child together? Poor little ugly thing.”
Senhor Pimentel laughed. “Nena’s as old as the hills. And the girl’s too light‑skinned to be theirs. I bet she’s not so ugly under all that dirt; she just needs a good scrubbing.”
“She’ll stay in the kitchen,” Senhora Pimentel snapped. “If she grows up to be decent‑looking she can serve the table.”
Senhor Pimentel took his wife’s hand. She fixed him with the same weary expression she’d had when she’d inspected the Great House. They discussed their plans for the house. Furniture that was upstairs would go downstairs. Rugs would be thrown out. Curtains replaced. Water pipes and a f lush toilet installed, which meant hacking into the house’s thick white walls.
There were footsteps behind me. Before I could hide, I felt a terrible stinging on the back of my arm. The cork‑eyed Pimentel girl pinched the skin above my elbow. I glared and shook her loose.
“Marta always cried when I pinched her,” the girl said.
“The kitchen girl at my other house, in Recife. It’s a mansion. Better than this pigsty.”
“This is the best house of any plantation,” I said.
The girl shrugged. “You must die of boredom out here.”
“Do I look dead?”
“It’s a way of talking. Are you dumb?”
“Not half as dumb as you look.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “You can’t talk to me like that.”
She was right—I was risking my place in that Great House. I blame those many months of freedom for my boldness, and for what happened next.
“This is my house now,” the girl said.
My hand made a crisp, exhilarating slap against her cheek. The girl gasped. I ran.
The kitchen pantry was an empty, cool space. I sat inside, waiting. My fingers throbbed from the slap I’d dealt. I had sickening thoughts of Nena finding me and giving me the worst thrashing of my life. Or, worse, Senhor Pimentel stalking into the kitchen and casting me out of the only home I’d ever known. After what felt like an eternity, there were footsteps and chatter, then the automobile growled again and the new Pimentels left with a promise to return and begin renovations.
I was impressed that the Pimentel girl hadn’t snitched; it made her tolerable to me, but also dangerous. What would she want in return for her silence? What would I owe her? These were the questions I asked myself in the weeks before the new Pimentels returned, while carpenters and stonemasons and plumbers sawed and pounded and pressed copper pipes into the Great House’s walls.
Years later, I asked Graça about the day we met and she laughed. I remembered it all wrong, she said. She’d slapped me.
Excerpted from "The Air You Breathe"
Copyright © 2018 Frances de Pontes Peebles.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. In The Air You Breathe, Dores grows up under the watchful eye of Nena, the head of the kitchen on the Riacho Doce plantation, while enduring gossip about her birth mother. Graça’s mother does everything she can to expose her absent-minded daughter to the arts and education. In what ways do Dores’s and Graça’s relationships with their mothers or mother figures affect the way they lead their lives in Rio and beyond?
2. Throughout the novel, Graça comes across as spoiled and selfish; however, Dores is forced to reevaluate her intentions when Graça accuses her of only ever looking out for herself. To what extent is this true and what might have prompted Graça to make such a comment?
3. Music is a pivotal part of each of the characters’ lives. In what ways does music act as an escape and a burden for Dores, Graça, Vinicius, and the Blue Moon boys?
4. Dores’s love for Graça can become dangerously unconditional and we see that any attention from Graça is enough to make Dores want to abandon the work they’ve put into the Sofia Salvador act to run away with her. Are there instances when Dores seems to have had enough? What pulls her back into Graça’s influence? Was Dores, in a sense, liberated by Graça’s death?
5. Why, when Senhor Pimentel reappears in the girls’ lives, is Graça so willing to let him back in? Is Graça’s love for her father similar to Dores’s love for Graça in that both are willing to settle for minor displays of affection?
6. Madame Lucifer and the Lion fought to get to their positions of power, and both show their respect for Dores’s perseverance. How is Graça treated in comparison to the way Dores is? Are there instances when Graça, rather than Dores, is invisible or in the shadows?
7. Vinicius is a grounded character who cares about the integrity of his music first. How does Vinicius, and his relationship with music, change when Sofia Salvador and the Blue Moon boys gain fame, first in Rio then in Los Angeles? When Graça wants to abandon ship, Vinicius wants to convince her to stay and finish filming for their movies. Is this a practical decision or one that reflects how he feels about fame?
8. Graça and Dores want what the other has. Dores wants Graça’s voice and her command on stage while Graça wants Dores’s ability to write music and her relationship with Vinicius. In what ways would our opinion of Dores change if the story had been written from Graça’s point of view?
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Using a common thread to tie the two little girls, Dores, an orphan working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation and Graça, the daughter of the house. But both have much in common: their nine-year old selves become fast friends despite it all: the plantation is remote and there aren’t many children around – so being the same age and enjoying many of the same things (even as Graça’s got far more exposure to the better life) are instantly a common ground to bond them. Soon however, they discover the music that winds itself through much of Brasilian life: the Samba. It is much like a ‘heartbeat’ of the people, one commonality in a world that epitomizes diversity from rich to poor, natives to newly arrived. Graça has a lovely voice, Dores is more connected to the rhythms and feelings the music brings to her heart, but the two are inexorably drawn to the Samba and their dreams to make their mark in Rio – the place to be noticed and gain fame. When Graça’s parents decide that she is to head off to boarding school, and takes Dores as her maid (as well-born girls do) they jump at the opportunity to make their own dreams come true, and run away without any solid plans or even a sense of where beyond Rio. From here the story becomes one of triumph and tragedy, dreams won and lost even as their friendship shows itself to be more codependent and competitive than one would expect from their earlier days together. But as people grow older, perhaps it is the positions adopted and learned at birth that inform your behaviors and relationships later on. And they did achieve and find success, and tumult on their path – even as they gained fame, accolades and even love along the way. The writing in this book is lyrical, there is a beat evident in the words, almost an omnipresent shimmer as the story unfolds: from quiet moments of joyous little girls abandoning themselves to friendship and fun to the more calculated and ‘task specific’ music that they create together throughout their long association. Narrated in Dores’ voice, we see the conflicts as they unfold, from segregation of dark and lighter members of the band into separate hotels in their venture to Hollywood, with the desire that Dores has to be recognized as an integral member, even as her position from all one may see is in the background, as the composer, most don’t see the hours and inspirations that bring the music, only those who bring it to them for their dance and enjoyment. Truly a struggle of loyalty and honoring what they had together, the story is engaging, engrossing and unlike anything I’ve ever read before: allowing understanding and perhaps a sense of the people born to the music of Samba. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
I really enjoyed the friendship of Dores and Graca, the music of samba taking over center stage, whisking them away from a Brazilian sugar plantation to the streets of Hollywood. As the decades fly, the girl’s need each other yet they resent each other. They have a dream and they won’t stop until it is fulfilled. With no family, Dores is raised by the head cook at the Great House. When family comes to claim ownership of the plantation, things begin to change. Although from two different worlds, an immediate friendship begins as Graca takes to Dores. I loved being a part of the cutters circle. This gathering was held nightly by the plantation workers as they gathered around a fire, singing and playing their instruments, unwinding at the end of their day. Sneaking off after dark, the girls would hide and watch this amazing event, fascinated by the music. Wanting to be a part of these festivity, the girls found their way in, when a radio finds its way into the Great House. A nightly reenactment by the girls of the radio hour, gets the girls closer to the music and gets the day’s events into the hands of the staff. The girl’s love of music and the power of the radio, ignites a fire within the girls. They see their future and they need each other to reach it. It was a fascinating journey as they left the Great House to become music stars. They were determined in their travels as there were barriers that needed to be crossed and plans that needed to be rearranged. As their strengths started to surface, the girls face some reality, as they decide whose voice will be heard on the radio. They both have strengths in different areas, which are both important to the success of the duo, but they each want their voice to be heard. I found it sad that instead of being grateful and appreciative of each other, the two girls resent and were envious of each other. Yet, I think that without each other, they would have been nothing. The negative feelings towards each other do not put a damper on this book. They did make me feel angry as I read them though, as I couldn’t believe after everything these women had gone through, this is how they felt. Then, what transpires later, I think reflects some of these feelings. This book was very detailed and I really enjoyed it. I loved how these two girls got bit by something they loved and set out to make it their dream. As I read, I felt for Dores at times as I thought she was keeping Graca’s interests at heart and forgetting about herself and at other times, I felt for Graca as she acted like a robot, only doing what she was told to do. I did find this novel long at times, wishing they would have cut out a few pages as some details were just too much. I won a copy of this book from a Goodreads Giveaway. Thank you Riverhead Books for having this giveaway. This review is my own honest opinion. 4.5 stars
3.5 stars It is hard to write a review for this book. It is rich and beautiful and evocative. The atmosphere is lush and lyrical. I smelled and tasted and heard Brazil. I wanted to adore this book. But for all that is very good about this book, it also felt like it needed a tighter storyline. I don't mind slow story building but there were times when I wanted to tell this book to, GET THERE ALREADY. The ruminations began to bog the plot down and felt tedious. There isn't so much need to spell out each and every internal dialogue when the story is well done - and this one is. By adding so much narrative aside, I felt the characters were restricted, as though the reader is being directed how and what to think about them instead of letting the reader have the freedom to imagine and engage the characters on our own. Simply put, I wanted to get lost in the story and instead I was continually jerked out of it for editorial asides. That said, the writing is so beautiful that will not hesitate to read more from Francis de Pontes Peebles. In fact, I look forward to her honing her skill and sharing more with the world. This book is a diamond in the rough for sure, but it still sparkles and shines. Thank you Net Galley for this ARC which I received for fair review
I enjoy historical fiction which introduces me to a time or place I know little about, stories which introduce me to the emotions and senses of a different era. The Air You Breathe is just such a novel. Set in Brazil before and through the second world war, we meet Dores and Graca, and watch their friendship, talents, and lifes grow and expand. Dores, orphaned and raised by a cook at the Great House of a sugar plantation, and Graca, the plantation new "Little Miss" who arrives at around age 9. Music becomes their savior, taking them places in life they never expected, but which Graca demanded and Dores became enamored with. Well written and engaging, Dores narrates their lives mostly chronologically from the end of her life, with interspersed short stretches about her later years. This technique keeps the interest building to a dramatic conclusion. Along the way tales of Rio in the 30s and 40s, of Brazilian history and culture, and of the music of samba educate and entertain. A very enjoyable read. With thanks to NetGalley, Frances de Pontes Peebles, and Riverhead Books for the advanced readers copy.