Quite by accident I was flicking through my Netgalley offerings a few weeks ago, and selected a random handful of YA coming of age titles I’d not heard of. Jennifer Niven’s BREATHLESS review is here because of that happenstance.
I’m not sure I can convey how much I love this book. Except to say that I never wanted it to end. And I love that it didn’t.
Remember Judy Blume’s Forever? How, for an entire generation, it was a groundbreaking book which actually tackled being a teenager, walking us by the hand through an honest experience of first love, first sex, and all the loaded emotions that went alongside?
My BREATHLESS review? Well. It’s a new generation’s Forever. Except it’s better. More inclusive, more mature, more balanced, more insightful, more joyful, more wild, more honest… It’s a beautiful, wonderful, exciting breathless bike ride through a baked hot summer crammed and bursting with friendship, first love, adulthood, nostalgia, family… and so many beautiful words.
In fact, it’s far far more than my pre-teen self reading Forever all agog. It’s older, deeper, more joyful and more visceral.
In 1988 I sat at the start of the summer holidays with my friends and watched Dirty Dancing on VHS. It was a pivotal moment in my teens. I watched Baby coming of age, finding out who she was, what she wanted, standing up for what she believed in, saw her and her sister discover each other again, and of course the wonderful sizzling hair-standing physical chemistry.
All through that long hot summer I watched it again, and again, and again; always smiling, angry, breathless, anticipatory.
And that’s the exact feeling I got this week, thirty years later, reading BREATHLESS.
Claudine’s summer is a lot. Like, really a LOT.
Jennifer Niven seamlessly winds the tangled threads of Claudine’s relationship with each of her parents, her best friend far away, the new life she is suddenly thrust into, and of course The Boy. (Oh, Miah).
There’s no sugar-coating any of the stress. There’s no hiding the angry, sullen teenager. Nor the deep, aching pain as she navigates this strange new world. My heart ached for Claudine as much as I zinged with joy for her. Breathed the lightness, the exhilarating freedom along with her. There’s no annoyingly neat answers and no easy endings. It’s as perfectly, wonderfully, beautifully messy as real life gets.
The experience of ‘the first time’ is quite brilliant. Funny, tender, and imperfectly perfect. I wanted to quote a scene at the end of that chapter, but it would be a spoiler, so I can’t. Just know that I actually cheered out loud at her parting shots as she left.
As an adult, BREATHLESS made me feel again the anguished whirl that is the shedding of childhood, the painful acceptance of how the world is versus how you want the world to be. I felt again the tingling secret smile of first love, the first time you feel way down deep inside the difference between a teen crush and the actual thing. The certainty, the rush of power – and the simultaneously terrifying vulnerability. The bone heavy pain of heartbreak – and not just the pain of being broken by The Boy.
Oh, and I loved her relationship with her Mum. Properly loved them every time they were together.
And I’m shoving BREATHLESS into my teen daughter’s hands as hard as I can. Because here is a book which not only deals with all those important issues in a way she’ll relate hard to, but does so from the viewpoint of a wonderful, strong, flawed, vulnerable, overthinking, impulsive smart girl. A girl I’d be thrilled for my daughter to emulate.
Claudine knows her own worth. She makes up her own mind. She’s unsure – and though she’s in need of advice and help, ultimately she understands she’s writing her own future, and she remains beguilingly honest with us, her readers.
The whole book rings with the solid truth of a huge bell* . Anyone with friends or family far away will cry a little inside when Claudine is on the phone to her long-distance best friend. Claudine’s broken, and desperately needs her friend, who assures her
“You’re not alone, I’m right there with you”.
and Claudine notes “…it’s what you say to your best friend when you don’t know what to say, and all you want to do is be there for them and make the bad things go away”
Which, as a person with a tight group of the very dearest online friends, scattered across the globe, I felt the truth of as a sharp stab, remembering all the times over the years I’ve felt and said the same.
So the sum of my BREATHLESS review? It’s simply this:
Mums – read this, and remember.
Teens – read this; listen, learn, know you’re not alone, that it’s okay. And that you get to choose.
“…open yourself up to love and possibility, to almostness and maybe. Use your voice. Let others in. Choose your future. Choose your body. Choose yourself. And go out there and write your life.”Jennifer Niven
*(unsurprising when you read the Jennifer Niven’s acknowledgements. Which everyone should do – it’ll make you love this story even more)
BREATHLESS is published by Penguin, and release date is 29th September. Pre-order now at your local bookseller, or Waterstones for £6.49
If you’re still here, you might also like to read my love letter to audiobooks. As well as the why, it’s also got loads of ace recommendations of new/old reads – if you like BREATHLESS, you’ll probably like Eleanor & Park too.