Breathe is a fever dream of a novel, and it’s as an allegory of grief that it most sparkles ... Breathe is also a moving meditation on grief time, where there is no beginning, no end, and 'each hour, each day, passes with excruciating slowness yet it is all happening very quickly'. And true to O’Connor’s dictum, Oates lands the book’s wonderful ending.
This is straight-ahead American fiction where the hard truths are voiced and the hard facts are faced. Michaela is a sympathetic character as we watch her find unbearable disbelief in how her world is being yanked out from under her. This novel is a perfect pandemic allegory, yet it is reality to so many families and partnerships in the last year and a half. It is hard to find a way to fictionalize the horror that so many people have been going through recently, but the dedication of a longtime prose master like Oates is the perfect scrim through which to witness one case up close, a case that everyone will experience at one time or another ... Even with heartache at the center of this story, Breathe is a beautiful read, a flowing, steadfast journey that will call upon your empathy and compassion in a way that is profoundly real and really profound.
... stormy, even by Oates’s dark domestic-gothic standards, dramatizing Michaela’s grief as it curdles into disorientation and then utter derangement. As a narrator, Michaela out-magical-thinks Joan Didion’s magical thinking. She unreliably narrates like few have unreliably narrated before. It’s both wrenching and at times over-the-top ... As a portrait of the wobbly unreality of existence that comes with a loved one’s death, “Breathe” can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to resolve the story while preserving Michaela’s boiled-brain irrationality. She isn’t afraid to delve into overstatement to make the point that losing someone we love carves out a piece of us. But that also means Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the novel’s latter stages. No rationality can reach her. Gerard’s neuroscience offers no comfort. Nor does spirituality — she sees those Pueblo gods as vile monsters. Nor does teaching, which only introduces her to people she can’t trust. She’s friendless and has no family. She’s so inconsolable that she becomes less a character than a leaden symbol of inconsolability ... 'To be a good widow, as to be a good wife, one must learn how to lie convincingly,' Oates writes, just as Michaela is starting to slip badly into irrationality. In its best moments, Breathe shows how that makes a kind of sense; so many relationships are made of the stories we tell each other. But it’s also a novel that falls in love with its portrait of paranoia — and that’s not a healthy relationship for anybody.
Breathe is stormy, even by Oates' dark domestic-gothic standards, dramatizing Michaela's grief as it curdles into disorientation and then utter derangement. As a narrator, Michaela out-magical-thinks Joan Didion's magical thinking. She unreliably narrates like few have unreliably narrated before. It's both wrenching and at times over-the-top ... The early going of Breathe is rich with...fine-grained passages about Michaela's morbid disorientation in the face of her widowhood ... As a portrait of the wobbly unreality of existence that comes with a loved one's death, Breathe can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to resolve the story while preserving Michaela's boiled-brain irrationality. She isn't afraid to delve into overstatement to make the point that losing someone we love carves out a piece of us. But that also means Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the novel's latter stages ... In its best moments, Breathe shows how that makes a kind of sense; so many relationships are made of the stories we tell each other. But it's also a novel that falls in love with its portrait of paranoia—and that's not a healthy relationship for anybody.
... the highly affecting story of a woman facing the unimaginable loss of her spouse ... As the book nears the end, time begins tumbling forward in a chaotic manner. It’s hard to know what is real and what is imagined as the novel rushes toward its shocking and ambiguous ending.
Oates’ own husband died of pneumonia a decade ago, and one can only imagine the horror of watching him die was part of the inspiration for this book. It is difficult to read in places, especially as Michaela begins to unravel in her terror at the prospect of living without Gerard. The book moves in and out of varying points of view that can be hard to follow, though the effect is likely to make the reader as uncomfortable and out of sync as Michaela whose grief is deafening. It’s hard to give an overview of what exactly happens in this novel as the timeline isn’t linear ... For fans of Oates, there’s a value in reading the novel. And, I imagine, those interested in grief could find a compelling character study in Breathe. It isn’t for everyone, though, largely because the chaos and mess of Michaela’s life, in the wake of the last two years in America, may simply be too much to bear.
Breathe will appeal to fans of intensely interiorized literary fiction, psychological suspense like Chris Bohjalian’s The Flight Attendant, and searing explorations of grief and loss like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
While the characters here are decades younger than Oates and Gross, one can speculate that she drew upon her own grief in crafting this novel, which is gut-wrenching and devoid of sentimentality. Oates doesn’t pander to the reader and leaves Michaela’s duality open to interpretation. Recommended.
Shards of nightmarish grief coalesce in Oates’s powerful latest ... Fecund with fear and anguish, and driven by raw, breathless narration, this hallucinatory tale will not disappoint. Oates is on a roll.