“So, it’s me who’s going to tell you about Sylvie. Like it or not, someone must.” It is hard not to like Lorrie’s story of her friendship with her next-door neighbor in Angela Readman’s impressive debut novel, “Something Like Breathing.” However, Lorrie’s point of view makes up only one part of the book. The other comprises Sylvie’s singular perspective.
Readman’s colorful contrast of two mind-sets allows her reader to see her young women from various angles and admire them for their unique observations and shared strengths.
It is 1957 and Lorrie’s family has moved from urban England to rural Scotland. Their new home is a cottage on a remote island where her grandfather (“Grumps”) runs a whiskey distillery. Lorrie’s father has to adapt (“He couldn’t stand mackerel, or weather”); she refuses to make any effort: “I hated the sulky skies and rustling quiet.”
Her feelings change when she meets Sylvie. Opposites attract: Lorrie is outgoing and craves fun and adventure; Sylvie is plain and peculiar, reserved and gauche. They click, but Lorrie is all too aware of her friend’s oddities and her low social standing at school, and is determined “not to catch her unpopularity and let it seep in.”
Years go by, seasons change, and so does Lorrie, who finds a more glamorous and less embarrassing friend in queen bee Blair. But after Blair takes her on a disastrous double date with two of the island’s bad boys, Lorrie comes away licking her wounds and rethinking her loyalties.
She reappraises Sylvie and learns to accept her for who she is — oblivious to the fact that her old pal is making a drastic plan to break free to the mainland and finally live her life the way she wants to.
Readman’s novel starts with a whimper and ends with a bang. During the slow-paced opening sections we could be forgiven for thinking this is a gentle rose-tinted tale of cozy camaraderie and adolescent escapades. But as Readman expands, she casts shadows over the lives of her two main characters and highlights the trials, quandaries and agonies of the adults around them. There are sunny fairs and weddings, but also near-fatal accidents, mysterious disappearances, bitter feuds and more than one breakup and breakdown.
Sylvie tells her side of the story by way of personal diary entries and essays. Lorrie’s more streamlined account is studded with amusing “evaluations” of everyone she encounters. Many characters stamp their presence on the page. Lorrie’s mother’s dwindling love for her husband is skillfully captured (“Every year, my mother’s laugh took up less space in the room”); Sylvie’s mother, with her exacting standards, controlling nature, fear of God and love of Tupperware, steals whole scenes as a redoubtable force and an object of derision.
Beautifully bittersweet, this first novel is a rich evocation of youth and a joyous celebration of individuality.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Something Like Breathing
By: Angela Readman.
Publisher: And Other Stories, 246 pages, $15.95.