When Katie Kitrell is shipped off to boarding school by her distant father and overbearing mother, it doesn’t take her long to become part of the It Crowd. She’s smart, she’s cute, and she’s an Olympic-bound swimmer who has a first class ticket to any Ivy League school of her choice. But what her new friends, roommate, and boyfriend don’t know is that Katie is swimming away from her past, and from her schizophrenic older brother, Will, who won’t let her go. And when he does the unthinkable, it’s all Katie can do to keep her head above water.–From Goodreads
I was initially intrigued by Jessica Warman’s Breathless because of its emphasis on a sibling with mental illness. Given my Psychology background, I am interested in schizophrenia, and just as intrigued by the ways in which it impacts the family members of those who suffer from the disorder. When Katie leaves her family behind to attend boarding school after her brother’s hospitalization, I could understand her desire to start fresh by lying about her past. I wanted to feel sympathy for her. However, as the book continued, I had trouble liking Katie, as well as most of the other characters.
Breathless is a semi-autobiographical novel, and while I appreciate the therapeutic value of writing about one’s life, I wonder if the author was sometimes a bit too close to the story. The premise of the book kept me reading from cover to cover, but I grappled with several issues throughout. First off, while the actions of the characters were anything but wholesome (sex, drinking, smoking, etc.), the dialogue often struck me as a little too after school special. At times, the characterization felt flat and repetitive. I was particularly bothered by the scenes involving Drew’s Christianity and concerns about everyone else going to hell, which consistently distracted me from what might otherwise have been great romantic tension. Additionally, the pacing of the book felt off-kilter to me, rushing through the plot more quickly with each passing year, until reaching a choppy reunion scene in the epilogue.
As with any first novel, I think there are some writing kinks that need to be worked out as the author grows. Given that Warman’s career is just beginning, I applaud her willingness to tackle such taboo subjects. Not all writers are so courageous. Mental illness, dysfunctional families, and inappropriate teen behaviors can be difficult issues to discuss with the right balance of tact, realism, and discouragement. One does not want to resemble a Public Service Announcement anymore, nor would a YA author would want to encourage illegal and risky choices. While I was disappointed in some aspects of the novel, I was generally pleased with Warman’s ability to find this balance.
Overall, Breathless did not leave me breathless, but it did keep me reading all the way through. These days, if I finish a book, that says a great deal in and of itself. I have over 300 titles on my wish list, and shelves full of books already purchased or borrowed and waiting to be read. If I don’t enjoy something at all, I don’t make it very far. I finished Breathless, and I am willing to give Warman another shot if she releases a second YA novel.