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The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
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The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
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Jul 02, 2019 | ISBN 9780735211001

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    Jul 02, 2019 | ISBN 9780735211001

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  • Aug 21, 2018 | ISBN 9780525640615

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“[A] glorious, glittery saga of friendship and loss…Along the way [the two main characters] acquire… total interconnectedness, the likes of which I last found in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend… I read The Air You Breathe in two nights. (One might say I inhaled it.) …The Air You Breathe is genuinely exciting to watch.”  —NPR

“Gorgeous … Peebles captures the complexity of these two women forever linked by their early bonds, and she vivifies their colorful times and the nuances in their relationship as it evolves over the decades.” –The National Book Review
“Enveloping…Peebles understands the shifting currents of female friendship, and she writes so vividly about samba that you close the book certain its heroines’ voices must exist beyond the page.” –People
“Frances de Pontes Peebles captures the profound complexity of female friendships.” –Business Insider
“We love, love, love novels centered on female friendship—especially a complicated one like this.”HelloGiggles
“Frances de Pontes Peebles’ atmospheric second novel tracks a rich and volatile friendship through Brazil’s sugar plantations, lively Rio streets, and beyond.” –Shondaland
“An absolute masterpiece…beautifully rendered…THE AIR YOU BREATHE manages to weave together the delicious tales of interpersonal relationships with the art of music making, while never losing sight of its reader/audience…Peebles is a master at sustaining dramatic tension, a wizard with intrigue and language, and a skilled curator of intimacy…Even more challenging is the ability to be able to create unapologetic antiheroes, which Peebles excels at…The tension created by these elements—the sociopolitical context, the drama of  interpersonal relationships and queerness, and the high-stakes nature of subsisting off art—make a masterful book, sure to enthrall from beginning to end.” Lambda Literary 

“Echoes of Elena Ferrante resound in this sumptuous saga.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

“The Air You Breathe is a beautiful, luscious ode to the lasting friendships that shape our lives.” BookRiot 
“While The Air You Breathe is a brilliant portrayal of female friendship, equally brilliant are Peebles’ descriptions of the soulful step-by-step rhythm of whipped-up samba musicians, the dank back rooms & makeshift stages of boozy clubs in Rio, how the world magically retreats when a bedazzled singer steps into view, erupting in song, and finally the celluloid seduction of Hollywood studios. This is a remarkable and deeply felt tale of the price of ambition and fame.” KMUW 

“I loved getting to know Graça and Dores, two brave young women who leave the lives they were given behind in pursuit of the lives they desire. This novel has countless nuggets of wisdom that sneak up on you at the perfect moment…You’ll love this story of a lifelong friendship—and like me, you might find yourself looking back at the songs or people that first shaped you.” – Diane Guerrero, author of In the Country We Love, starred in the hit series Orange is the New Black.

“A poor orphan and a wealthy heiress whose roller-coaster friendship is a welcome reminder that time can make any relationship stronger.”—Glamour

“If you like your fictional friendships cinematically devoted and rocky, Frances de Pontes Peebles’s The Air You Breathe is gold.” –Redbook

“A haunting, poetic novel about friendship, love, and longing, tinged with golden age glamour. A perfect fit for any general fiction collection.” –Library Journal, starred review
“Beautifully written and structured. … The Air You Breathe is a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship, with many lows, and it shows how friendship shapes our lives and what we owe to it. This is one of those novels you find hard to put down without finishing.” –The Washington Book Review

“The book practically moves in your hand; it is so musical in story and in prose. It’s a joy to read and the original lyrics could easily be mistaken for classic sambas.” –NPR Alt.Latino

“This majestic, emotionally astute novel is as haunting and lovely as the perfect samba.” –Dallas Morning News

“Samba music and its allure beats beneath this winding and sinuous tale of ambition, memory, and identity…Peebles’ detailed and atmospheric story is cinematic in scope, panoramic in view, and lyrical in tone.” –Kirkus, STARRED review

“A sweeping, cinematic and thoroughly engrossing tale about an eduring friendship and the story of samba. . .[An] unforgettable novel.”—BookPage

“This epic novel will transport you to places as far-flung as Brazil’s heyday of samba and Los Angeles’ Golden Age of Hollywood. But what will keep you reading is Frances de Pontes Peebles’ description of a friendship that bridged socioeconomic classes during their youths, and shifted and persisted throughout the girls’ lives…One a singer and the other a songwriter, they’ll chart each other’s paths towards fame, a journey laced with treachery and excitement.” Refinery29 

“Frances de Pontes Peebles’ tender novel follows this unlikely friendship and the jealousy and rivalry that come with their pursuit of fame.” –Real Simple 
“Peebles does a marvelous job of evoking the world of samba, which forms the backdrop to the complicated relationship the two women share. Readers…will be rewarded with complex characters and a well-realized setting.” Booklist 
“Peebles presents a captivating…portrait of friendship…[the book’s] reflections on love, music, envy, and loyalty ache with feeling, and a hint of mystery surrounding the central relationship’s dissolution will keep readers intrigued until the end.” Publishers Weekly 

“Although this novel is set during the 1930s in Brazil, the tale between two friends remains timeless…Each page is as intoxicating as the characters themselves; the perfect read for a long weekend or day off.” Fashion Week Online

“A soaring fusion of emotion, intense drama, and the compelling rhythms of Brazilian music, The Air You Breathe belongs to the special category of historical novels that chronicle entire lives – and it does so in enthralling fashion…Dores narrates in a voice as lyrical and achingly passionate as the sambas she writes…The novel is an intoxicating performance itself, not to be missed by anyone wanting to be wrapped up in a well-told story.” Historical Novel Society 

“A masterfully choreographed saga of friendship, envy, sacrifice and love—as soulful, layered, and intoxicating as the samba that reverberates from the page.” –Georgia Hunter, New York Times-bestselling author of We Were the Lucky Ones

The Air You Breathe is that kind of fairy tale where the curse is that your dreams come true, and keep coming true, and you have to survive it for the rest of your life. Two girls run after their dreams of samba, stardom, friendship, and art, and the result is this glittering, mesmerizing triumph of a novel.” –Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night

“A glittering, beautiful story full of romance and intrigue and tragedy… hard to put down.” –Anton DiSclafani, New York Times-bestselling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
“I was captivated by this narrator’s voice—wise with years of secrets, disappointments, and burning proximity to so much heat and light. And what a story she has to tell: an aching reminiscence of lives entwined by music, friendship, and longing. Vivid and unforgettable.” 
–Laura Moriarty, New York Times-bestselling author of The Chaperone
“Prepare to lose yourself in this sweeping, lush novel about two girls in 1920s Brazil brought together by circumstance and kept together by love—of song, of success, and, in the end, of each other. As rich and complex and moving as music itself.” –Cristina Henríquez, author of  The Book of Unknown Americans
“Sweeps you up like a fairytale, and although the characters are deep and real, the story keeps its breathless magic to the end, with transformations and journeys and bonds as entrancing as Graça and Dores themselves. An ambitious and consuming novel.” –Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers
“A luxuriant, lovely, utterly delicious book.  It will transport you to a world that is half-magical, half-historical, deeply familiar, and wholly new.  I couldn’t put it down.” –Abby Geni, author of The Lightkeepers

Author Q&A

Q&A with Frances de Pontes Peebles

You’ve said that this novel sprang from your interest in writing about Carmen Miranda. At what point did you realize that you wanted to write a novel that moved away from the facts of Miranda’s life?
The Air You Breathe began as an exploration of Carmen Miranda’s life and career. She is an icon around the world, but she is also a problematic figure. In Hollywood, her colorful costumes and her accent were exaggerated to the point of making her a caricature of herself. The end of her career, like her life, was very sad. Carmen Miranda’s story is compelling, but ultimately I felt hemmed in by having to follow the trajectory of her life faithfully. It felt like a story about a Hollywood star that has already been told many times, in many forms. I didn’t want to tell the same story over again. This was very early in my writing process, when the novel was more an idea than a fully formed manuscript.
At the time, I was reading a biography of Édith Piaf, written by a former friend of hers. I was fascinated by the tone of the book, how much love and jealousy was in the account of their friendship, how music bound them and also broke them apart. My instincts told me that my novel wasn’t about an actual Hollywood star but about music, friendship, loss, and memory. I discovered Dores’s voice and found her point of view much more compelling. So I told the story from the point of view of the “unremarkable” friend, a musician and lyricist behind the scenes, who sees her best friend—and the love of her life—become warped by stardom, and who harbors a lifetime of jealousy and regret.

Your novel spans a tumultuous period of Brazilian history. Was it tricky to allude to a political past you couldn’t assume your readers knew about previously?
It was challenging to give historical context, to build a world and show how politics affected the characters’ daily lives, without making the book into a dry history lesson. This novel went through many drafts, many complete rewrites, in part because I got bogged down in history and research. My editor helped immensely with this. With each draft, she gently pushed me to serve the story better, to be the writer that this book deserved. Ultimately, this meant letting go of history and focusing on the characters and their music.

You also write about Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. When you researched those periods, what did you discover that surprised you?
In the book, the fictional Blue Moon Band has the opportunity to be in the movies as part of the Good Neighbor policy during World War II. The U.S. government basically demanded that Hollywood studios scout new Latin American talent, and change viewers’ perceptions of Latinx characters by casting them not as villains but as heartthrobs, sexpots, or (in Carmen Miranda’s case) fun-loving, comedic sidekicks. The Blue Moon Band must live within the strict confines of the Hollywood studio system.
Hollywood was painted as a bohemian, unconventional place, when in reality it enforced the same rigid and demeaning racial and sexual castes as the rest of the 1940s United States. Black and brown entertainers were not allowed into many popular nightclubs as guests or as entertainment; even when they were allowed to work, they were paid twenty percent of what their white counterparts earned, and they had to ride in freight elevators and sit in separate sections of studio cafeterias. For a band like Blue Moon—whose members identify as black, white, male and female—this is devastating because it divides them.
Hollywood studios also placed morality clauses in entertainers’ contracts, allowing the studios to terminate employment if there was any “offense against decency.” This was aimed at gay and bisexual entertainers. Studios demanded discretion, which meant that you had to keep your sexuality a secret or else you would be fired and run out of town. I can’t say I was surprised to learn any of this, but it was important for me to understand and try to depict in a way that was true to the time period.

Your two protagonists, Dores and Graça, are in love with samba. When did you discover that form? Had you written songs in that form before you wrote them for this novel?
Where I’m from in Brazil, samba isn’t the most popular musical genre. (In northeast Brazil, it is forró—a twangy, accordion-based style that is reminiscent of Mexican corridos and also of polkas—that has always dominated the musical landscape.) Of course, I’d heard samba often in my life, but it was only during writing and researching The Air You Breathe that I tried to truly immerse myself in samba and its history.
It was intimidating to write about samba, which is sacred in Brazil. Samba is so complex and dynamic that I couldn’t fit it all in this book. I couldn’t do it justice, and this weighed on me. But music is also an extremely personal experience, so I eventually let myself feel what samba is for me, and for the characters in my book—Dores and Graça. For them, music is salvation. Music is a way to be seen and heard in a world that tries, again and again, to discount and demean them. Music is their weapon and their solace.
The sambas I wrote for the book are styled like poems, with an emphasis on lyrics rather than melodies. I’m not a musician, so I tried to re-create the poetry of samba on the page, just as Dores would.

How closely did you model the character of Dores on singer-songwriter Chavela Vargas, whose singing voice was—like Dores’s—said to be like “an old drunk’s at a bar”?
I actually kept two photographs of Chavela Vargas—one of her as a young musician and another when she was very old—next to my computer as I wrote. There is something about her eyes in these photographs, something so deeply sad and wise, that reminded me of Dores.
The trajectory of Vargas’s life—being a star, then being forgotten and becoming an alcoholic for decades, then recovering and discovering her voice again—was definitely an inspiration for Dores’s trajectory. I also love and respect Vargas’s complete disregard for society’s opinion of her. Outwardly, she expressed no shame or regret about her sexuality and was very open about being a lesbian at a time when such openness was both dangerous and career suicide. I wanted Dores to be like this. She, like Chavela, knows who she is as a physical being. This allowed the novel to explore love in its multitude of forms: romantic love, physical love, artistic love, unrequited love, and the deep love between friends. Dores and Vinicius, for example, love each other first and foremost as artists. The bond between them is deeper than any physical love affair, and has its own kind of romance. They give each other the strength to keep creating. They save each other through their art.

At first, Dores and Graça perform together. Later, that changes, and Dores focuses on songwriting. Does that mirror a decision in your own life, to write rather than to be onstage?
Aside from a stint in high school drama club, I’ve never wanted to be on any kind of stage. I don’t want to appear. I want the exact opposite: to disappear into a character, or into a different place and time. For me, the best thing about writing is feeling completely immersed and transported, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Those minutes are incredible! I live for those moments when I’m so engrossed and in love with whatever I’m working on that I forget myself and live vicariously through my characters.

Are there particular books that inspired you or assisted you as a writer, for this book or more generally?
The Wild Iris, a poetry collection by Louise Glück, and the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop helped me a lot. Both women’s poems are suffused with longing and regret, as I hoped Dores’s voice would be. Poetry, like music, speaks to the deepest parts of our natures.

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