The Air You Breathe

I felt a strange kind of resignation as I watched Graca with the Blue Moon boys: it was no use vying for their attentions; how could a sparrow compete with a peacock? How could a shrub compete with a blossom?” Dores Pimentel

Every now and then there is a book that reaches out and grabs your heart and soul. The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles is one of those books. The setting is Brazil during the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood during the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s, and then Las Vegas. It begins with two girls living on a sugar cane plantation in Brazil- Graca is the beautiful daughter of the owner, and Dores is a Afro-Brazilian illegitimate child of a prostitute being raised as a kitchen girl. Graca has a God-given voice and her goal is to be “magnificent”. Dores is very intelligent and is a born survivor. Together they share a love of music, in particularly the love of samba. According to Peebles, samba is part of the Bahia culture in Brazil, a street music with African origins brought to Brazil by slaves. Using today’s terminology, she describes it as a hip-hop vibe. Graca’s family would consider samba as “too black” and beneath her social standing, but that doesn’t stop Graca from becoming an international samba star much like Carmen Miranda. Dores doesn’t have the looks or the voice, so she becomes the stage manager for Graca and the Blue Moon Band. Dores also becomes an internationally famous and wealthy song writer of samba music. The novel is the story of their intense, and I repeat, intense friendship of two decades. It’s no spoiler that Graca dies young, and Dores lives to 95. Dores says everyone is dead, and now she can tell the story her way.

Peebles does an incredible job constructing this story. Each section is defined by one of Dores’ songs. Her music helps her hold onto her past; her memories are defined by her music. Dores was a lyricist so the songs are in poem form, and they are beautiful. Peebles wrote the original lyrics because she wanted the authenticity of them being Dores’ works. The title of the book comes from one of Dores’ most famous lyrics, and one which truly defines her relationship with Graca. Dores is willing to be as invisible as the air Graca breathes just to be in Graca’s orbit. Dores, who is bisexual loves Graca in many ways- romantic, sisterly, as childhood besties. Graca doesn’t seem to have a lot of capacity to love. She is too driven and narcissistic. Their’s was a friendship of love, loyalty, shared goals, but the friendship turns dark with rivalry, jealousy, betrayal, way too much enmeshment.

After one of Graca’s most heartbreaking career betrayals of Dores, Dores says, “It’s in these moments that we’re confronted with life’s cruel indifference to our survival. We realize that we are at the mercy of forces we cannot fathom; the control we thought we’d exerted over our lives slips like a fish through our hands. This is how I felt that night, after Graca closed her Copa show.” And Graca? Dores says, “In every success there is loss, and in every failure, a gain. Graca knew this better than anyone.” And yes, great loss comes after this Copa show.

I’m as fascinated by Peebles as I am about her book. She is Brazilian-American, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, grew up in Miami, graduated from University of Texas in Austin, lived for several years on her family’s coffee farm in Brazil. In her original draft, Peebles has Graca as the main voice. Graca is based on some real experiences of Carmen Miranda. But fortunately for us as readers, she ultimately tells the story through Dores. Read this book.

Ponderings: Peebles’s website is worth spending time on. She has some podcasts of interviews and a link to Project Heirloom, where she tells stories of some American families and their journeys. I highly recommend reading some of the stories. Also listen to the vintage sambas on her playlist on this link

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s