Review of Breathing Underwater

Breathing Underwater
by Sarah Allen
Intermediate, Middle School    Farrar    224 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-374-31325-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31326-5    $9.99

Thirteen-year-old Olivia has a plan for the cross-country RV trip she and her older sister, Ruth, are taking with their mother’s cousin and his wife: re-create — in reverse — the photo scavenger hunt they’d carried out when they moved from California to Tennessee three years earlier. Olivia hopes rediscovering the moments of delight will help Ruth, who is clinically depressed, handle her condition better. Olivia, an aspiring photographer, spends the trip watching the world through her camera and keeping an eye on Ruth. Ruth’s depressive episodes often coincide with Olivia’s plans for force-cheering her sister, and she tries to balance supporting Ruth with her own enjoyment of the trip. This drives a wedge between them, until things reach a crisis point and Ruth has to be hospitalized. Allen vividly captures Olivia’s caretaker tendencies (“I needed to do whatever I could for my sister; to turn my volume down if things were too loud for her”) and how her attempts to manage Ruth’s depression are simultaneously futile and necessary. Olivia’s literal and metaphorical journeys in the book work well together, and Allen does a good job of showing depression’s impact on an individual and a family in a realistic but child-appropriate way. The book’s resolution — happy for the moment, but with no guarantees for the future — is spot-on.

From the May/June 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sarah Rettger
Sarah Rettger is an independent bookseller in Boston.

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