Reason To Breathe (Breathing #1)
2013 (originally 2012), 528p
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Emma Thomas is counting down the days until she finishes high school and can leave. Her father died when she was young and her mother became unable to care for her so Emma was placed with her uncle, her father’s brother George and his wife Carol at the age of 12. Since then, for the last 4 years, Emma has suffered persistent mental and physical abuse at the hands of Carol who makes it absolutely clear that she considers Emma nothing but a burden. Emma keeps herself busy – she’s got a 4.0, she’s editor of the school newspaper and she plays three sports to keep her out of the house as much as possible and away from Carol. But it isn’t enough.
Emma is always very careful to guard the secret of her home life tight around her. Her best friend Sara knows, mostly through guesswork as Emma doesn’t like to speak of it. She knows she doesn’t have long left, just her last two years of high school and then she can be free forever. But Emma’s carefully constructed life begins to fall apart when Evan Matthews moves to town and begins attending her school. Evan is charming and funny and very interested in Emma. Emma hasn’t dated before, not willing to go into the complications that come with that: no phone privileges, no having anyone over at the house, always having to make up excuses for why she can’t go somewhere or do something or why she has this bruise or that cut. But Evan changes all that – for the first time Emma finds herself wanting to take the risks involved. Even if it means lying to not only the people that are making her life hell, but also one of the few people that she’s coming to really care about.
This is one of those books where the words for what I want to say about it don’t come very easily. There are some books out there that may not be that particularly well written, technique wise, and you can find frustration with the characters. But the story itself is so infinitely readable that you can forgive a lot of errors. For many, Twilight was such a book. And 50 Shades Of Grey. I think that for me, Reason To Breathe is going to be one of them.
On one hand, this book is highlighting a topic I don’t often see addressed so frankly, one of systematic abuse. It’s not uncommon and this book isn’t afraid to tackle the ugly side and give it to you raw. The scenes where Emma quite literally fears walking in her front door, where she holds her breath as she attempts to get to her room without being seen/stopped/accosted/etc are tense and generate a breathlessness in the reader as well. You want Emma to speak out, to tell people what is happening to her. You can see that there is help for her, the help that she needs, if only she would embrace it. But Emma doesn’t and her reasons seem very flimsy and that left me frustrated and often angry at her. I know she’s been living in this house for several years and that she’s experienced physical and mental pain for all of it. She believes that all she has to do is ride it out until college and then she’ll be free. But Emma underestimates the severity of her situation and in doing that, she places herself at such risk. She had such a wonderful best friend in Sara and an equally wonderful friend/boyfriend in Evan, both of whom desperately want to help her because they know that things are very, very wrong. And I have to say, the fact that Sara, who was privy to more, kept quiet, was a bit disappointing. I get being loyal to your best friend. But she saw what Carol was doing, she saw the evidence and she helped Emma hide it. She could’ve gone the other way and gotten Emma out. Emma was never going to be left in a foster home situation, or forced out of the area. She had people that would’ve helped her – they were everywhere. I get that the book is highlighting the fact that so many people feel they cannot speak out against these sorts of things – but there was an opportunity here to really address speaking out and how it might have empowered Emma and helped remove her from her situation of such passivity and terror.
However, there are some shining lights in this book – the first is the friendship between Sara and Emma. Sara is devoted to Emma and she does her absolute best to help her. She’s at first suspicious of what’s happening and then outright sure and although she keeps the secret unhappily, you can tell she’d rather have told someone (her father is a judge). I felt like their friendship was extremely well constructed – not without its flaws but real and believable. Of course everyone but Emma is excessively rich in this book, which is a little distracting and allows them more freedom than most but Sara was a down to earth character with a sassy, humorous side and I think that she mostly had Emma’s interests at heart. The other spot was the relationship between Evan and Emma, which ticks a lot of boxes that don’t usually do it for me (new boy at school, rich, inexplicably drawn to the MC, etc). He smiles an awful lot, which is weird and he continues to be extremely interested in Emma despite the fact that she rudely rebuffs him a lot in the beginning, but the more the book went on, the more he grew on me. He’s impossibly rich (as is Sara) and I know that seems to give them a lot of freedom. To be honest, even with her strict guardians, Emma had more freedom and a later curfew than I did!
This novel has quite the cliffhanger, so you may want to have the second novel ready go to when you finish. I’ll be interested to see if the story line can really sustain 3 novels. It’s the sort of novel that I find it really hard to give a rating too – because even though I ripped through it really fast, I had a lot of problems with some of the story (ok, quite a lot of the story actually) and some problems with the characterisation. But for readability, I have to give it a pretty good mark, so…
Book #62 of 2013