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Breathless by Jennifer Niven

Claudine “Claude” is about to graduate high school and is looking forward to the summer before college hanging out with her best friend, going on the road trip of a lifetime and hopefully hooking up with the local heart throb. Her goals (and preoccupations) are to experience sex and to be a writer. However a bombshell announcement that her parents are separating leads her to spend summer on a small island off the coast of Georgia where her mother is undertaking historical research. Her focus changes from boredom and chasing the very limited phone reception when she meets the attractive, forthright but mysterious Jeremiah ‘Miah’ Crew, also on the island for the summer. Miah and Claude share sex, ideas, their families and pasts, places on the island and become entwined physically and emotionally.

The reader is swept up in Claude’s narrative, and becomes absorbed in her thoughts and feelings and perceptions. Her relationship and increasing feelings for Miah are the centre of her summer but we also hear about her anger at her father for deciding his family is not enough, and her difficulty in connecting with her best friend. The historical story of Claude’s ancestors on the island and her relationship with her mother are also in the narrative but not really developed. One could argue that adds to the authenticity of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood and independence, horrified at changing family and friendship dynamics but desperate to experience life, reacting emotionally and with a fair degree of self-absorption.

Niven’s previous and highly successful young adult novels have had an emotional and sexual relationship at the core but have also dealt with serious issues as well – bullying, suicide, depression and family abuse. “Breathless” is also about young lovers but has less dramatic issues in the framework, being about a relatively “normal” teenager raised within a secure and loving family. Niven acknowledges that Claude’s experiences of parental separation, time on the island, and her passion for writing are somewhat autobiographical. As is the exploration and experience of first love, in all its awkwardness and doubt, intensity and passion with the book being dedicated to her husband, the original “Miah”.

I am not sure that the title, ‘Breathless’, with its steamy, passionate connotations of being swept away does this novel justice. Claude always has something to say, and is not one to be overwhelmed. She battles her curiousity about having sex with her need for the first time to be something special and significant. She navigates the tension of a first and intense relationship with a strong sense of self, insisting on sex with a condom, and owning her betrayal of Miah’s trust with honesty and a plea for forgiveness.

Her voice is authentic and heartfelt and her experiences relevant to many teenage readers as Claude develops the understanding and strength and confidence to become uniquely herself and to “write her own story”.

An absorbing, intensely felt story of summer romance, “Breathless” is recommended as realistic account of being a young woman growing up and taking important steps towards adulthood and selfhood, particularly for those in the process themselves.

Reviewer: Clare Lyon


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