The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles is a historical novel set mostly in Brazil from the 1920s through the 1940s. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. The writing is atmospheric and fantastic.
The story is narrated by Dores, now age 95, who spends her days listening to old vinyl records, looking at photos and reminiscing over her life. She wonders if she had acted differently, how her life would have changed. Dores tells her story of growing up a poor orphan in Brazil. Born in 1920, she works as a kitchen maid on a sugar cane plantation where she meets Graca, the plantation owner’s feisty and spoiled daughter. The two girls become best friends but also competitors. They discover samba music and dream of becoming famous sambistas. Dores and Grace run away to Rio De Janeiro to seek fame. Grace has a beautiful voice and Dores, a gift for writing and composing sambas. Their many adventures ultimately lead them to Hollywood during World War II.
This is a book about their complicated friendship, a love triangle, the pitfalls of Hollywood stardom and the love of music. For Dores, it was about the choices she made and the relationships in her life that made her who she is. The Air You Breathe is one of my favorite books of the year and one I will definitely read again.