Poor Emma Thomas (short for Emily, which is an irritation unto itself) is looking for reasons to breathe first in Reason to Breathe, again in Barely Breathing, and still in Out of Breath (all 2013, Skyscape, which I believe is an imprint of Amazon Children's Publishing). Yet the more I read, the more I think she ought just to stop, and not put any of us through the work of it anymore.
What particularly maddens me about the series is the character. She's stupid. Willfully stupid, willfully depressed, willfully resistant to helping herself. About two-thirds of the way into book three (Out of Breath) she has an epiphany, which is delightful and makes me like her for a little while, then she slips back into her old patterns and habits of self-loathing, which make me hope that the next time she walks out into the ocean, she just keeps going. (Note: I listened to the trilogy on audio, and it is a credit to narrator Kate Rudd that I moved on to the sequels. Well, credit Ms. Rudd and a very long road trip.)
Author Rebecca Donovan is ambitious, which I like, but needs a stronger editor, which I don't. If I had a paper copy, which I don't, it would be so marked up with grammar and phrasing edits that the original text would be hard to find. And of course, that's me, self-professed Editor of the World. The style might not be so frustrating for other readers. Donovan uses language in an interesting way, but too often the creative diction is subverted by poor grammar, repetitive phrasing, and word choices which are just-ever-so-slightly off ("mouth" for "lips" and vice versa, for instance) which becomes enormously frustrating, and involves many shouted corrections. In book three, Donovan undertakes an interesting narrative shift, using two first-person narrators. Because I'm listening rather than reading, I cannot address how the shifts are handled in print, but audio narrator Rudd does an excellent job distinguishing her characters from one another, particularly when the narration switches between main characters Emma and Evan. All the characters have distinctive voices and tones, and Rudd maintains them consistently throughout the series, adroitly navigating the sometimes abrupt narrative shifts in the third book.
I asked a writer friend how much realism is too much, and she answered, very sensibly, that if you don't like the character, that's a disservice to the reader, the book, and the character herself. So, while it might be argued that Emma is responding exactly the way a real-life teenager might respond in the same hideous circumstances (and they are, indeed, hideous), if it makes me dislike her, if I can find no redeeming qualities, what service does that do for the reader? Even in periods of deep (and often very, very dark) realism in YA literature (the late-1960s into the early 1980s, for instance), the literature had something beyond the misery to offer the reader. Readers might see themselves, their own pain, their own fear or helplessness, but these texts offered the reader alternatives--"Do I dare disturb the universe?" If not this time, perhaps the next. Real, stark, but with possibilities.
Donovan fails to offer even this much to her character, and thus to readers. Even the proscriptive "happy ending" does not alleviate all the misery, helplessness, and self-suppression in which poor Emma Thomas has engaged. And while I'm ultimately glad (if surprised) that Emma didn't walk back out into the ocean, I really don't care as much as I wish I did. So I'm still mulling the question of realism: how much is too much? How much wallowing makes sense before characters need to find some agency and take responsibility for themselves and their own happiness?
Note: I wrote an earlier version of this blog as a review on Goodreads. See it here.