It really pains me to say that I found Sarah Crossan’s “Breathe” a significant disappointment in the line of YA dystopia fiction despite an interesting offering on a scientific concept – what if oxygen were in rare supply in the overarching world? What would happen to the people who couldn’t afford to have it, since trees are said to have become extinct and only the wealthy, who control the production of the oxygen, can afford to “buy” their sustenance? It sounds like an interesting concept right?
To be blunt, the oxygen notation of the book is just a side aspect of this dystopic universe – it’s never fully vetted out, though noted with some half-hearted assertions about why the world is the way it is that comes across as offending and scientifically bogus. “Breathe” chooses to center on the lives of three teens – two girls and one boy – Alina, Bea, and Quinn respectively in viewpoint. Alina is a rogue young woman part of a rebel group fighting against the oppressive rule of the Breathe society – which controls the amount of oxygen. She undertakes a mission that she knows might get her caught, and ends up recruiting the help of two other teens to make it back into the land outside of the controlled society.
Bea is a young woman who comes from a poor background and seeks to move herself up on her own terms in the Breathe society. She’s known Quinn, a boy who is part of the elite class of Premiums, for a long time and has admired him from afar for some time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really notice her. Quinn can afford all the oxygen he needs, among other things, because of his family’s rank, so he comes across as a bit of a wealthy, spoiled brat in terms. When Bea and Quinn are asked by Alina to accompany her past the Pod, they have a two day supply of air to undertake a journey that they have no idea what will eventually happen.
To say that I was underwhelmed and disappointed by this book, in retrospect, is an understatement. The characters are incredibly flat and difficult to care about, lacking a due amount of intimacy in the very beginning despite some rather stark turns in the plot. To start, the only reason Bea and Quinn are following Alina is because Quinn takes a liking to Alina and Bea goes along hoping that when they’re done she can have Quinn to herself. *winces* Not a good way to start a story.
It’s a weird measure to approach a love triangle this way (which isn’t really a love triangle, you kind of understand who ends up with who after a certain point). Even so, the journey is not quite as easy as they would anticipate. Considering bombs, surviving in the wild, and having a little old lady (Maude) steal your air tank at knifepoint don’t really figure into the picture for these three teens. Nonetheless, they’re in for the ride of their lives, toggling between an oncoming war and an uprising against the oppression of the Breathe majority.
I think much of this book progressed with such ridiculous back and forth assertions that it was difficult to take seriously and feel connected to. The characters aren’t really treated with many degrees of emotional intimacy, and the reaction to significant events (i.e. deaths) is quite underscored through most of the book compared to the level of conflict. There’s so much focus on the romance and less on the harrowing situations that the characters supposedly face, and it feels mostly shoved in the reader’s perception. There were certain static passages between the switching narratives that I felt didn’t match up with the situation. For instance, during a trek where Quinn is hurt and separated from the girls, the girls don’t really do much to worry about Quinn except to speculate on his death and Quinn isn’t so much trying to get out of his hurt/near death situation except to speculate on how he ignored Bea for quite some time. I think the character priorities aren’t realistic for the world that is established here, and it shows.
Ultimately, as the story moves forward there are some striking clashes between the Breathe society and their attempt to keep control. Quinn’s father is a large part of this process, and he’s a crude character who doesn’t care whom he hurts to get what he wants. The story culminates in battles and clashes that end with losses, but the ending of the novel is so abrupt and leaves so many loose ends that while I could see where it’s left for a sequel – it’s not very inviting, especially given the lack of intrigue with the primary cast save for a few significant events. Those events weren’t enough to save the novel for me.
I also found that I cared more for a few side characters than I did the main ones. One of those characters actually ends up getting killed and I hated the way that it was depicted, because it didn’t show enough emotional resonance for the cruelty that was displayed.
In sum, “Breathe” was much like a sucker punch to the gut – in the wrong sense of resonance. I wish it could’ve been a better experience to match the intrigue of its overarching premise. Bad science, insta-love, flat characterizations, and ludicrous focus on certain aspects of the story really killed the experience for me.
Overall score: 1/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from Edelweiss, from the publisher HarperCollins/Greenwillow.