breath like water

Okay so. I did not sports as a child. I was (still am, maybe?) afraid of every kind of ball, not coordinated, super awkward, not good at following rules as far as outs and penalties and fouls, and just in general was Not About Them. My mother was not about to have a sedentary child, no matter how much I loved to read and no matter how talented I was at piano, so I was required to do ballet folklórico all school year and swim team in the summers. I think I’m actually a very good swimmer in the technical sense, but in the practical sense I had an undiagnosed (misdiagnosed as asthma) breathing condition, so I was not fast, and as we grew up together, a lot of the kids on the team got mean and I got bullied, so hooray! I quit when I was 16.

But I do really, really love swimming.

I accidentally fell into being a children’s swim instructor, even. I hate what it does to my hair and my skin, and I hate having to take my contacts out, but when I force myself in the water, I am actually really, really happy. Actually, that’s sort of what my YA WIP is about, but that’s neither here nor there.

So when I saw Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab pop up on my Netgalley–a brown girl! Swimming!–I was intrigued. To be honest, it’s only recently that I started finding something to enjoy and respect about romance as a genre anyway, and it’s really not my taste in YA literature for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here, but the description was still enough for me to give it a try:

Susannah Ramos has always loved the water. A swimmer whose early talent made her a world champion, Susannah was poised for greatness in a sport that demands so much of its young. But an inexplicable slowdown has put her Olympic dream in jeopardy, and Susannah is fighting to keep her career afloat when two important people enter her life: a new coach with a revolutionary training strategy, and a charming fellow swimmer named Harry Matthews.

As Susannah begins her long and painful climb back to the top, her friendship with Harry blossoms into passionate and supportive love. But Harry is facing challenges of his own, and even as their bond draws them closer together, other forces work to tear them apart. As she struggles to balance her needs with those of the people who matter most to her, Susannah will learn the cost–and the beauty–of trying to achieve something extraordinary.

Anna Jarzab, Breath Like Water

Susannah is an elite swimmer poised for college athletics, the Olympics, or both. I have never been an elite anything, and I can’t say I can identify with what her training experience is, but what I can identify with is having your body betray you when you think it should be doing what it could always do, and with not being able to fully comprehend how and why it’s not the same as other people’s. I can also identify with having cruel male teachers and supportive female ones. One of the major threads in this book has to do with her two coaches–first, the one who has been her coach all along but is now losing interest in her as she fails to live up to his standards and has the audacity to have non-swimming interests like friendship and romance, and second, the new assistant coach Beth, who sees something in Susannah that Susannah isn’t quite ready to recognize until she realizes that Beth’s methods are making her a better swimmer and healthier person. I don’t think enough YA focuses on teens’ relationships with adults (especially non-predatory sexual ones and non-parental ones), which seems weird if the point is Teenagers, but adults are a major part of teens’ lives, and I really like how Jarzab explores both positive and negative relationships with adults and their consequences in Susannah’s life, also both positive and negative.

One thing I’ve found as an adult is that, to my surprise, I can value sports and physical activity even when having no interest in participating in them. It’s fun to make fun of sportsball and talk about how Superb Owls are better than the Super Bowl, but it’s also unfair, because we all have the right to like whatever we like, and especially right now when everything in the world is terrible, we shouldn’t begrudge anyone a pastime unless its Naziism or Confederate Pride. This is a chicken-and-egg situation wherein I don’t know if I found fitness because I was finally able to recognize that it goes beyond team sports and competition or if I realized that and then went out and found a gym, but either way, it turns out that I can enjoy watching the Olympics and the World Cup and wearing my Arizona gear during March Madness, and I am allowed to not actually care about the overall standings of different teams and to check out when a game is not actively happening. All at the same time! In learning to love the forms of fitness that have changed my life and my body, I’ve also learned that I can respect other people’s love of sports because it appeals to parts of their brains and bodies. Doing Pilates makes me hyper-aware of every part of my body and has made me realize that athletes must feel similarly when it comes to elite training in their particular sport.

Jarzab does a great job describing swim practices and training and the excruciating pain Susannah experiences during an injury; you can feel it and find joy in the discipline of it all. (Honestly, it makes me a little embarrassed of the quality of my two sports novels, but they’re already published and unchangeable, so whatever.) I’m not really a woo person or Aerobics Barbie kind of cheery, #goodvibesonly fitness person; I am someone who likes fitness in the ways that athletes like Susannah like their sport. Serious work is something I find joy in. I don’t really like fun. Ask anyone who’s known me since high school; they will confirm that. “Fun” in the conventional sense is not something I enjoy.

So anyway, that’s what appeals to me in Breath Like Water. It’s not serious in a drudgery sort of way, but it’s serious in the sense that it’s a disciplined text about a disciplined person, and the wins and losses, in and out of the pool, are earned and feel real. Susannah and Harry’s relationship is believable, and as a girl who never had a date to prom or a boyfriend to walk to her to biology class and is obviously still bitter about it, I appreciate that it doesn’t feel like a romance that’s too easy. Escapism’s not really my jam, which is why I don’t like many YA romances. This one’s not that.

Breath Like Water released yesterday from HarperCollins, and I appreciate the review copy they sent me! Check your library or yoink it from Amazon | my store on bookshop, the place for indie bookstores

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