Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles, an epic of friendship, ambition, and music set in 1920s-30s Brazil

A soaring fusion of emotion, intense drama, and the compelling rhythms of Brazilian music, The Air You Breathe belongs to the special category of historical novels that chronicle entire lives – and it does so in enthralling fashion. Its focus is the close, volatile friendship between Dores, a kitchen maid born on the Riacho Doce sugar plantation in northeastern Brazil in 1920, and Graça Pimentel, the owner’s only child.

The two first meet as girls, when Graça and her parents move into the plantation’s Great House. Graça is strong-willed, selfish, and unmistakably charismatic. They share an education (at Graça’s insistence) and adventures, and an excursion to a big-city concert kindles their musical interest and ambitions for greater achievements. This was a time when LPs and phonographs seemed like magic, and the era is conjured up brilliantly. The girls dream of becoming radio stars together, Graça’s mellifluous voice complementing Dores’ raspier tones. Their path takes them from the diverse nightlife scene of Lapa in Rio to the movie studios of Los Angeles, where Graça, as “Brazilian Bombshell” Sofia Salvador, performs her unique brand of South American entertainment. Alongside Graça’s upward trajectory, Dores partners with a guitarist to write songs the others make famous.

The women’s relationship vacillates between symbiosis and rivalry, all the while shaped by outside forces and unreciprocated desire. Looking back from old age, Dores narrates in a voice as lyrical and achingly passionate as the sambas she writes. She reveals early on that Graça died young, but not how, and the mystery suffuses her tale with longing. Through her wise observations, readers experience their music at every stage: its intimate creation, the showy on-stage performances, and the informal rodas, where their group plays just for themselves. The novel is an intoxicating performance itself, not to be missed by anyone wanting to be wrapped up in a well-told story.

The Air You Breathe was published yesterday in hardcover by Riverhead; I wrote this review for August's Historical Novels Review.  Reading it over now, I did gush a bit!  It's one of my five-star reads for the year.  Peebles has an earlier novel (2008), The Seamstress, also set in Brazil during the same period, and which I haven't read yet, but it's moved up much further on the TBR pile.

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