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Music is highly organized sound. It is a language we learn without even realizing it. We hear our first song and decipher its repetitions, its orderliness. The song teaches us what to expect and when to expect it [.…] Even if we don’t entirely know what is coming next, our instincts tell us where the song might take us, and what memories it might unearth.
–The Air You Breathe
It is easy, with the proliferation of narratives that follow musicians and music, to write off a nearly 500 page novel about love and samba. With so many choices in new fiction, why read The Air You Breathe, Frances De Pontes Peebles’ newest masterpiece?
Because that. Because it’s an absolute masterpiece.
This beautifully rendered novel maps the epic rise to fame of Sofia Salvador (whose non-stage name is Graca), a fictitious, Brazilian samba singer, dancer, and actress. Told from the perspective of Dores, Sofia/Graca’s best friend and sometimes lover, the novel follows the journey of the two girls from their first meeting at a sugar plantation, through their careers in entertainment. Spanning over seventy years of Dores’ life, through war and famine and strife and xenophobia, the story manages to weave together the delicious tales of interpersonal relationships with the art of music making, while never losing sight of its reader/audience.
Peebles is a master at sustaining dramatic tension, a wizard with intrigue and language, and a skilled curator of intimacy. She knows when to give context (for example, the economic/cultural context of Brazil and the United States during this time period), and when to allow a thing to be a thing (sexuality/identity, and samba: “Samba came from masters and slaves, from parlors and sums, from cities and plantations, from men and women. You cannot trace its origin, so why try? Why not just sit back and listen to the music?”), which keeps engagement high throughout.
Even more challenging is the ability to be able to create unapologetic antiheroes, which Peebles excels at. Graca is both the light that illuminates each character in the novel, and the overwhelming fire that burns them all up. She is insatiable, voracious, impossible. And yet, no one can live without her. The tension created by these elements—the sociopolitical context, the drama of interpersonal relationships and queerness, and the high-stakes nature of subsisting off art—make a masterful book, sure to enthrall from beginning to end.
The Air You Breathe
By Frances De Pontes Peebles
Hardcover, 9780735210998, 457 pp.