Julie Orringer is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The Paris Review, and The Washington Post, among others. She is the author of the novel The Invisible Bridge.
“How to Breathe Underwater is a dark and beautiful book.”
"These stories are without exception clear-eyed, compassionate, and deeply moving”
"Orringer sifts the inexorable sparks for sexual awakening and unearths moments of brittle surprise and bitter triumph.”
"Orringer writes with penetrating intelligence and remarkable self-possession.”
"How to Breathe Underwater is an outstanding collection. . . . The moment I finished it I bought myself a first edition, and then another. It's that sort of book."
Serendipity — as it happens randomly, appears as if it were planted for you before you arrived. A waiter carries a tray of ice water, bumps against a woman. The water tumbles. A relationship is born. A lawyer browses the book store stacks for George Bush’s memoir, and next to it, a misplaced volume of poetry calls out to him, “Pick me, instead.” It changes his life. Increasingly, it is our machines planning the “aha” moments for us. Case in point, Amazon.com’s recommendation system: “you might also like . . . THIS” is how I discovered Julie Orringer. Amazon’s robot overlords saw fit to point me in the direction of her 2003 short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater. I was looking to find a book of contemporary literature that might connect better with my undergraduates, a book without Pink Monkeys or Spark Notes, one that would make my students think about their own connection to memory, imagination, and literature. Then Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater appeared on screen, as if waiting for its cue.
Orringer, whose first novel The Invisible Bridge was published last year, makes you believe that the project of realistic fiction can still make a difference, if only left in the right hands. How to Breathe Underwater takes the all too often shopworn theme of “coming of age” and invests it with new life and deep relevance. Having taught it for three consecutive semesters, I can attest to the book’s arresting impact on students. They really connect with it. It is the kind of fiction that speaks especially well to young people who don’t have well tuned ears for challenging fiction; they don’t need special hermeneutic qualifications to read this stuff. They “get it” viscerally and see aspects of themselves in Orringer’s finely drawn characters: kids coping with diseased parents, guilt, shame, jealousy, addiction, immaturity, religious questing, and personal tragedy. “The Isabel Fish,” one of the best in the set, explores guilt, revenge, and reconciliation among siblings in the aftermath of a fatal car accident. “The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones” plucks a teenage girl from her comfort zone and drops her into an orthodox religious community, where her religious questions run parallel with forbidden sexual initiation. In Orringer’s short story universe, a change in setting is often the engine for a transformative experience.
There is a consistency of quality throughout the set. Orringer keeps her narrative pacing tight; stories move with inexorable momentum. She is reluctant to stretch plots beyond their realistic snapping point, and knows how to leave a story open ended, allowing it to breathe. This makes them quite friendly to classroom or book-group discussion. The stories virtually teach themselves. Her characters evoke our compassion, and in the case of the antagonists, our understanding. Even the ones we disapprove of and can’t forgive are acting for discoverable reasons.
Sometimes such well-honed storytelling is too much of a good thing, like hearing a soprano hit all the right notes, yet something essential is missing. Not the case here. I think Orringer is able to transcend the trap of mere expert craftwork by holding doggedly to her artistic ethic, in this case, a mode of traditional literary realism. Her eye never loses focus, and the imaginative truth springs into view. In each of the “realistic” lives being depicted, easy answers, short cuts or deus ex machina solutions to growing up are not to be found. Children and teenagers must plow through to the other side, somehow. The “somehow” is the stuff of the stories; they offer situations as occasions for growth and maturing. There are no smooth ways across. How to Breathe Underwater reminds us that the crises, tragedies, and dramas, no matter how dark and confusing, can be survived.