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Breathing Underwater

Review

Breathing Underwater

Few mediums have done as much as YA literature to smack the happily ignorant masses upside their thick heads with the message that teen love isn't always sweet and poetic. True, Eminen "really" goes out of his way to educate society about violence against women by beating and killing his wife in his songs. And if there is ever a lull in the love triangle saga on "Dawson's Creek," the gang might tear themselves away from their own ridiculous romances to shake their heads in sympathy at some poor girl in school who is being abused by her boyfriend --- in fact, Joey might paint a mural about it while Dawson makes some really edgy documentary. But with books like Sarah Dessen's DREAMLAND, Louisa Luna's BRAVE NEW GIRL and first time novelist Alex Flinn's BREATHING UNDERWATER, YA authors and publishers clearly deserve most of the credit for striking a blow against the don't-ask-don't-tell status quo and giving this overlooked epidemic some much needed attention.

Of course, the problem for teen authors has now become: Amid the flurry of second-rate trauma/drama stories that have descended on teen audiences like a flock of Oprahs (the aforementioned BNG and DRMLND notwithstanding), how do I write a book about an abusive teen relationship and still maintain a fresh perspective? Flinn's approach is both a unique and effective one --- BREATHING UNDERWATER explores the abusive relationship between two highschoolers from the abuser's perspective.  

Nick is a smart, rich, popular, good-looking 16-year-old guy. From his backstory --- his father is both physically and mentally abusive --- Psych 101 tells us that he, too, will be an abuser. And, in fact, he is. When we first meet Nick, the consequences of his furious blows against his girlfriend have left him slapped with a restraining order, ostracized by his peers and forced to undergo rehabilitation in the form group therapy sessions with other abusers (though Nick seems them as a bunch of psychos). He is also instructed to keep a journal chronicling his relationship with his girlfriend from the first moment they met. It is through this stylistic device --- interweaving the retrospective journal entries throughout the present day action of the story --- that the reader best witnesses Nick's decent from an all American boy with a dark and troubled past to a convicted felon estranged from the woman he loves.

The victim of Nick's fists of fury is Caitlin. Once fat, now beautiful, Caitlin has the sort of "issues" that make her a prime target for abuse. We are left to suppose that her fatness was either the cause or a consequence of her low self-esteem. In either case, her current view of herself is considerably less positive than the way others see her. To the outside world she could have any boy she chooses, but in her own mind, she's lucky to have a cad like Nick. This core belief binds her to Nick even as he calls her fat and stupid and, eventually, beats her to a pulp. Is Caitlin simply too terrified to talk about the abuse? Or, on some level, does she feel she deserves it? Most likely, it is a combination of the two. But either way, Nick and Caitlin's sick theater of pain and degradation continues unchecked until the authorities finally step in.

BREATHING UNDERWATER walks a thin line between letting us understand Nick and excusing his actions. For the most part, the author chooses to ignore that line. Her solution is to report the truth of the world as she sees it and let the reader assign blame. But if shame is the product of being wrong, then Nick was wrong indeed. His shame and the depth of his sorriness are spelled out in heart stroking details. By the end of the story his rehabilitation is complete: Nick finally realizes that what he did to Caitlin was inhumane and cruel and starts to make strides towards "unteaching" himself all that he's learned from his father's example. Readers may question the veracity of this quick change, but Flinn's prose is generally deft enough to support it. A happy ending for Caitlin is less clear. Has she acquired the tools to avoid being a victim again or will she fall prey to the next unreconstructed Nick clone that rolls across her path? BREATHING UNDERWATER seems hopeful, but as real life has proven, we can't be absolutely sure.

Reviewed by Jamal Matthews on October 15, 2002

Breathing Underwater
by Alex Flinn

  • Publication Date: October 15, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTeen
  • ISBN-10: 0064472574
  • ISBN-13: 9780064472579