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“It’s just me and the water, the truest love story I have ever known,” Susannah Ramos. —Breath Like Water

Breath Like Water

by Anna Jarzab
Diverse Characters


At A Glance
Interest Level

13+
Entertainment
Score
Reading Level
6.5
Number of Pages
416

Susannah Ramos became a world champion swimmer at 14. But two years have passed, and she has yet to reclaim her former glory after an injury. Susannah is fighting through the lapse, but she feels like she’s floundering at the one thing she loves most in the world – swimming. When a new coach with a new training strategy and a charming new teammate named Harry Matthews enters her life, Susannah begins a painful fight back to the top of the ranks.

During her dramatic comeback, romance blossoms between Susannah and Harry. But Harry has secrets of his own, and the pressure of competitive swimming and other outside forces work to pull the pair asunder. Susannah must work to balance her own needs and the needs of her loved ones. She must also figure out which wonderful things in life, like friends and swimming, are worth the struggle.

One of the most prominent storylines of Breath Like Water deals with Susannah’s journey as a competitive high school student-athlete. Jarzab intelligently writes about Susannah’s experience with constant pressure from intense coaches and her teammates. The coaches in particular stand out because of their interactions with Susannah and her teammates. They give an intensive look at what it means not only to work hard but to work with intelligence. The swim competitions are well-paced and show Susannah’s thought process as she’s competing.

Told from Susannah’s point of view, this story shows her as a likable but tough kid. Breath Like Water spends a good amount of time detailing Susannah’s recovery from a shoulder injury. The story also shows Susannah’s mental and physical struggle that comes from being a competitive athlete. These parts of Susannah’s journey show her frustration and determination to be better. Susannah faces adversity at every turn, and she takes the emotional and physical pain with as much grace and dignity as could be asked of a sixteen-year-old.

Another prominent storyline deals with the relationship between Susannah and Harry. They quickly go from friends to dating. Susannah learns that Harry has dealt with bipolar disorder for much of his life. This book tackles the difficult parts of Harry’s life, including his past drinking problems and self-harm, and he does relapse during the novel. Susannah and Harry learn how to cope with their insecurities and neither character is villainized for who they are. Things are not perfect for the pair, but they care about each other and work to make their lives better.

Breath Like Water is a refreshing story that intertwines competitive swimming with Susannah’s growth into young adulthood. The heart of the novel is in the love Susannah has for swimming, for Harry, and for her family. Susannah wants to make it to the Olympics, but she learns that win or lose, she has to love herself and love what she does. This book is excellent for those who want an exciting, and often times harsh, look at the reality of competitive swimming. Breath Like Water reads like a love letter—to family, to friendship, and to the water that keeps us all afloat.

Sexual Content

  • One of Susannah’s former swim teammates is pregnant, much to everyone’s surprise as she was slated for the Olympics. When Susannah asks how, her friend replies, “Don’t make me explain where babies come from. My version does not involve storks.”
  • Harry shows up at Susannah’s house early in the morning. She sees Harry and thinks, “The sight of him does funny things to my nether regions.”
  • Susannah likes Harry, and Harry likes Susannah. Susannah thinks about her feelings and says, “I’ve had crushes—I’ve even been kissed a few times, by a boy at swim camp a few summers ago—but nothing close to Harry.”
  • After beating her time at Nationals, Susannah kisses Harry. She narrates, “Before he can say anything else, I bracket his face with my hands and press my lips to his lips in a long, hard kiss that leaves my head spinning…Harry lifts my chin with his fingers and takes my lips with his, easing them apart. His palm comes to rest on my jaw and his other hand drifts to my hip, drawing me in by the waist.” They continue to kiss periodically throughout the book.
  • Harry keeps touching Susannah’s leg with his foot, and Susannah thinks, “He’s got sneakers on, and I’m wearing jeans, and we’re in public, but the image of his barefoot gently touching my bare leg as we lay wrapped around each other in bed keep flashing through my mind.”
  • Susannah is worried about having sex. When she asks Harry if he’s a virgin, he “shakes his head slowly.”
  • Susannah walks in on her sister Nina and another girl “making out on Nina’s bed.” They tell Susannah that they’re dating. Nina later comes out to her parents as pansexual.
  • Susannah and Harry have sex. Susannah narrates, “I love the weight of him, the soft hair on his legs tickling my bare ones, the sharpness of his hip bones digging into mine . . . I sigh as he kisses my throat, my collarbone, the space between my breasts, letting myself drown happily in the sensation of knowing someone loves the body that I never could.” The scene is described over a couple of pages.

Violence

  • Harry has bipolar disorder. When he was young, he “did stupid stuff. Defaced a public building, got into fights with other kids. I was drinking and taking pills, and I . . . I cut myself, sometimes . . . Where no one else can see.”
  • While in a depressed state, Harry “cuts himself too deep” and then calls Susannah for help. Susannah calls 911. When she arrives at his house, she sees “travel-size bottles of alcohol scattered underneath Harry’s desk.” Harry’s parents decide to take him to the youth ward of the psychiatric hospital – one that he’s been to before.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Susannah and her friends go to a house party with other high schoolers. Susannah notes that most of the students “have red Solo cups in their hands, which I’m sure do not contain soda.”
  • Susannah’s mom sends Susannah’s dad out on an errand run before the tamalada, a tamale-making party, to pick up “last-minute groceries, liquor, and other supplies.”
  • Nina, Susannah’s older sister, “has appointed herself bartender” for the tamalada. The adult relatives get a little tipsy during the tamalada.
  • When he was eleven, Harry found out he has bipolar disorder. According to Harry, he “didn’t know how to control [his] emotions or understand what was going on with [him], so [he] started stealing vodka from Bruce’s liquor cabinet and getting drunk in [his] room whenever [his] parents fought.”
  • For his bipolar disorder, Harry is on a list of meds. He lists them saying, “I’m on a mood stabilizer, and Prozac . . . I also take Xanax for anxiety, and Ambien to help me sleep when I need it.”
  • Susannah tears the labrum in her shoulder, and the doctors, “gave [her] some good drugs” to fight off the pain.
  • Susannah’s mom takes Susannah to get prescribed birth control from the gynecologist.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently throughout. Profanity includes ass, fucking, shit, and damn. People flip each other off on a few occasions as well, though in jest.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Harry and Susannah use the Jewish community center’s pool to practice, and Harry mentions that his stepdad is Jewish.
  • Every Christmas, Susannah’s family hosts a tamalada, where family, friends, and neighbors are invited for a massive “tamale-making party.”
  • Susannah mentions that her parents were raised Catholic but that they don’t go to church.
  • Father Bob, Harry’s friend, and mentor, visits him in the hospital and runs into Susannah. Susannah thinks about her relationship with God. She thinks, “I’m not sure I believe in God, or the wisdom of priests for that matter. The closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience is a really great race.” Susannah and Bob speak for several pages about the Bible and Carl Sagan, both of which Bob is fond of.
  • When Susannah’s mom found out that she was pregnant, she said, “I’m not a religious person, but I prayed to a god I’m not even sure I believe in that I would be the sort of mother a little girl could look up to.”
  • Susannah compares her position in the Olympic trials to the other competitors. She says, “I’m like a mortal who somehow wandered up a cliffside to Mount Olympus and is looking for a place to sit among the gods.”

by Alli Kestler

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“It’s just me and the water, the truest love story I have ever known,” Susannah Ramos. —Breath Like Water

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