Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger

Breathing is natural, easy, unconscious. We say we need to catch our breath when we want to slow down. We tell someone to save their breath when we don't want to hear it. We say that a person has breathed life into something when we want to say that they improved or saved that thing. Someone can be a breath of fresh air. Someone else can wait with bated breath. And these are just a few of the idioms we use that center around this vitally important but mostly unnoticed act. It's only when we are struggling to breathe with a cold, croup, or asthma or focus on it specifically in certain exercises like yoga that we pay attention to our breathing because most of the time we take it for granted. But what if breathing was a struggle? Literally or metaphorically? In Susan Schoenberger's newest novel, The Virtues of Oxygen, there are two women, Holly and Vivian, who are both struggling to breathe.

Holly is a widow in her early forties. Her husband died very unexpectedly when their now teenaged sons were small and Holly has been doing her best to make ends meet ever since. She is the editor of a small local paper in her upstate New York town, living paycheck to paycheck as the fixer upper she bought with her husband gets ever more ramshackle and her financial reserves disappear. When her mother, who has been floating Holly money to meet her mortgage every month, suffers a debilitating stroke and the newspaper, no longer profitable enough thanks to the recession, threatens to lay off everyone and close, Holly finds herself floundering under the pressure and struggling to breath.

Vivian literally can't breath on her own. At 63, she lives in an iron lung that has kept her lungs going since she contracted polio at the age of 6. She is fiercely intelligent, having earned her college degree despite the physical confines within which she lives, and has invested shrewdly in the stock market. Now she's getting into business as a partner in one of the new cash for gold stores that have sprung up all over and which highlight the state of the economy in the otherwise almost vacant downtown. Vivian has an army of volunteers from the town who come and watch over her, make sure her lung is functional, and to help her manage the other banal business of life like eating, drinking, reading, and so on. Holly is one of Vivian's volunteers, having been on the rotation for years, enjoying her time with Vivian, questioning her, sharing with her, and gradually becoming a cherished friend. Since she cannot personally oversee this new business of hers, she hires Holly to be her eyes on the ground in her new venture.

Told in alternating chapters focused on Vivian and then Holly, the reader feels Holly's financial squeeze getting tighter and sees Vivian's mood cycle up and down. Looking at each woman in the presence of the other also lets the reader appreciate just how much they rely on each other emotionally, how they buoy each other, and the ways in which they worry about each other. It is easy to see the interrelationship between dependency and independence and the ways in which dependence is not always negative but instead forges important emotional connections between people. Both women learn much from each other, taking nothing for granted given the hands that life has dealt them so far. The novel is mostly told in the present day but there are also chapters of Vivian's unpublished podcasts, ultimately intended for Holly, that tell the story of Vivian's past, from the onset of her own illness and the death of her beloved older sister to the ways in which she carved out an intellectual life for herself while completely physically incapacitated. Schoenberger also uses Holly's mother's stroke and her remaining physical strength coupled with acute mental loss to contrast with Vivian's keen mental capacities trapped in a non-functional body. The end of the story is a little bit predictable and wrapped up quickly but over all this is an insightful look at the perseverance of the human spirit, the value of human connection, and the importance of keeping breathing no matter what.

For more information about Susan Schoenberger and the book, check out her website, Facebook page, Twitter feed or check out the GoodReads page for the book. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

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