"Breathe" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“Breathe,” by Joyce Carol Oates, follows a wife’s descent into delusion and despair following the unexpected death of her 48-year-old husband.
Gerard is beginning an 8-month residency in New Mexico at a prestigious academic research institute. He is on leave from his position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Michaela, 36, a memoirist with two books published, will teach at the University of New Mexico for several weeks. Both look forward to exploring the sites and natural surroundings of New Mexico, a place they haven’t visited in their 12-year-marriage.
Several weeks into their residency, Gerard goes to the emergency room with a cough he has dismissed as a reaction to the dry desert. A bacterial infection has turned into pneumonia. Tests show that cancer has spread throughout his body. Symptoms he ignored lead to his death within weeks
Michaela cannot comprehend the situation. She continues teaching but never mentions her personal struggles. She reluctantly tells Princeton acquaintances that he is just sick. Gerard’s grown children hear about his illness after he dies.
Michaela stays in the rented house until the eight months are up. She becomes crazed with sadness. She imagines the house’s decorous, odd indigenous Native American art pieces are stalking her. When Michalea discovers long shallow scratches on her arms, she believes the statue Siki, the Goddess of Creation and Destruction, has attacked her in her sleep.
Michaela is determined to travel to every site-seeing place the pair had marked in the tourist guides upon their arrival. She spends hours in a cafe, mindlessly ordering alcoholic drinks, while she tries to finish editing a dense academic book written by Gerard that was nearly ready for publication. She thinks that she sees Gerard everywhere.
Michaela envisions suicide as a way out of her despair. She fights against the urge to plunge into oncoming traffic or to swallow piles of pills that she has accumulated.
The ending of the story is ambiguous, which is fitting, since the novel is a mixture of fantasy, horror, and realism.
Oates’ first husband Ray Smith died unexpectedly in 2007. Oates wrote a memoir, “The Widow’s Story,” following his death. She describes months of grieving, struggles against the urge to kill herself, foggy efforts to teach and travel, and despair at all the paperwork involved after a death.
Oates recovered and remarried. “Breathe” seems to reflect Oates’ need to remember Ray and recall her struggles in what appears to be a fictionalized version of “The Widow’s Story.”
Joyce Carol Oates, considered to be one of America’s premier writers, is certain to draw readers to this absorbing story that will resonate with those who have grieved and those who love any work by Oates.