Thank uyou to Giselle from Xpresso Book Tours forinviting me to participate in the blog tour for Sarah Allen’s wonderful new book Breathing Underwater.
by Sarah Allen
Published by: Farrar Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Publication date: March 31st 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle-Grade
Breathing Underwater is a sparkly, moving middle grade novel from Sarah Allen, and a big-hearted exploration of sisterhood, dreams, and what it means to be there for someone you love.
Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt across the country, like pirates hunting for treasure, taking pictures and making memories along the way.
All she wants is to take the picture that makes her sister smile. But what if things can never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? Through all the questions, loving her sister, not changing her, is all Olivia can do—and maybe it’s enough.
This is one of the best books I have read this year, and, although I did keep in mind my twelve-thirteen year-old students when I read it, it can and it should be read by people of any age. The way Sarah Allen captured what it’s like to live and love a family member suffering from depression is so poignant and authentic. She also managed to do so much more and that is to show what it’s like to grow into yourself and begin to own your own feelings, realise that the different ways in which we see the world create it’s beauty.
Thirteen year old Olivia, who is passionate about photography, and her older sister Ruth are going on a road trip with their parents’ friends in an RV. Olivia would like this trip to become a Treasure Hunt that would recreate the hunt she and Ruth did in the past and remind them of happier times. Olivia tries so hard to be upbeat and keep her complex feelings under control not to upset Ruth or worry their mum. She is trying to understand her own limits (influence over other people’s choices, responsibility, anger, frustration, creativity ) and this mysterious thing called sisterly love.
It is difficult to imagine a better setting for a coming of age/self-discovery story than a road trip. Olivia is a talented photographer and she has a good eye for anything unusual: an angle that suddenly makes her see an ordinary object in a different light, a special detail that helps you understand the meaning of a place at a deeper level, a connection which isn’t obvious unless you’ve had a similar experience yourself. Ruth is musical – on their treasure hunts she used to come up with perfect playlists- and Olivia comes up with a heartwarming idea- she adds song title captions to her snaps, captions that bring together the sisters’ unique ways of seeing the world and creates a perfect fusion that is so meaningful for both of them.
The book is written from Olivia’s point of view and Sarah Allen manages to keep the first person narrative exactly that. Olivia has to rely heavily on her powers of observation to see the signs of Ruth having a downturn, because she is trying to do everything possible to make her sister feel better. Even a hint of smile on Ruth’s face can make Olivia happy. There isn’t a hint of omniscience that so often creeps into first person narratives. No, Olivia has to work out things on her own. She really doesn’t know what her sister or her mum thinks, she has to rely on their words or their body language, or take a guess, and this is one of the things that make this book so authentic. It doesn’t limit your ability to relate to other characters, though.
I wish I could interview Sarah Allen just to get a glimpse into her creative process and how she came up with this perfect ending. I felt I became Olivia for a brief moment- my heart was full of emotions I couldn’t express with words, but I had a picture in my mind that I will treasure.
Thank you to Giselle from Xpresso Book Tours, NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy provided in exchange for an honest opinion, which was not influenced in any way.
Sarah Allen has been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest. She has an MFA from Brigham Young University. Like Libby in her novel What Stars are Made Of, Allen was born with Turner Syndrome.
Tour-wide giveaway (US/CAN)
Print copy of Breathing Underwater
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If you would like to know what other bloggers thought of the book, here is the full blog tour schedule: