How to Breathe Underwater

Julie Orringer

I wanted to like this collection more, but there was something missing or it just wasn’t the right time to read it. Maybe the stories are just a little too polished, a little too clean. Like The Mother Garden, all of these stories involve some element of sickness or grief. But unlike that one overall this book doesn’t feel balanced because of such focus.

“Pilgrims” is kind of intense and twisted with this weird dynamic of parents taking care of themselves seemingly at the expense of their children one of whom becomes barbaric in his grief. There’s something about “The Isabel Fish” (where the title of the collection comes from) that I liked at first, but it ended unconvincingly positive. “Stars of Motown Shining Bright” is an example of Chekov’s “rule” about the gun. Except as soon as one appeared I thought, “Oh great. Now someone’s gonna die.” But then it didn’t quite pan out how I expected, so it seemed like the gun shouldn’t have been so important.

That might be the weakness in these stories. They feel very crafted. It’s not an entirely bad thing, but I didn’t quite lose myself in the collected moments. It’s like the sort of painting where you find yourself appreciating the brush strokes more than the image as a whole. It’s great to have a clean technique, but that doesn’t necessarily make the sort of magic that pulls at your heart.