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The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
Historical fiction

The Air You Breathe

by Frances de Pontes Peebles

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Quick take

Two girls—an heiress and a servant—discover love and fame in this evocative tale of friendship, betrayal, and samba set in midcentury Rio de Janeiro.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_LGBTQ

    LGBTQ+ themes

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FemaleFriendship

    Female friendships

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Literary

    Literary

Synopsis

Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music.

One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes—and haunt their memories.

Traveling from Brazil's inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship—its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses—and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Frances de Pontes Peebles's The Air You Breathe.
The Air You Breathe

Time is short and the water is rising.

This is what one of Sofia Salvador’s directors—I can’t recall his name—used to shout before he’d start filming. Each time he said it, I imagined all of us in a fishbowl, our hands sliding frantically along the glass sides as water crept above our necks, our noses, our eyes.

I fall asleep listening to our old records and wake with my mouth dry, my tongue as rough as a cat’s. I pull the handle of my La?Z?Boy and, with a jolt, am sitting upright. A pile of photos rests in my lap.

I own the most famous photograph of Sofia Salvador—the Brazilian Bombshell, the Fruity Cutie Girl, the fast-talking, eye-popping nymph with her glittering costumes and pixie-cut hair who, depending on your age and nationality, is either a joke, an icon of camp, a victim, a traitor, a great innovator, or even, as one researcher anointed her, “an object of serious study of Hollywood’s Latinas.” (Is that what they’re calling us now?) I bought the original photo and its negative at auction, paying much more than they were worth. Money isn’t an issue for me these days; I’m filthy rich and am not ashamed to say so. When I was young, musicians had to pretend that success and money didn’t matter. Ambition, in a sambista and especially in a woman, was seen as an unforgivable fault.

In the photo, taken in 1942, Sofia Salvador wears the pixie cut she made famous. Her eyes are wide. Her lips are parted. Her tongue flicks the roof of her mouth; it is unclear if she is singing or screaming. Earrings made to resemble life-sized hummingbirds—their jeweled eyes glinting, their golden beaks sharp—dangle from her ears. She was vain about her lobes, worried they would sag under the weight of her array of earrings …

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Why I love it

As a child, my life was full of uncertainty, and expressing myself through art was one of the things that made me feel most alive. I remember listening to Kaoma’s “La Lambada” as a kid, and feeling excited by the way it connected familiar melodies with sounds that were entirely new. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but to me those sounds represented the connectivity between human beings. They made me realize that music has the power to bring people and cultures together. So when I read this story of two young women and their shared passion for music, I could relate because I too grew up loving to perform, create, and sing.

The Air You Breathe tells the story of Graça and Dores, two strong girls who bond despite their vastly different upbringings. Their mutual love of samba—one is a singer, the other a composer—takes them to Rio de Janeiro and beyond, where they form an uneasy musical partnership that, at times, becomes a rivalry.

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, but here’s just one that’s stuck with me: “When we are young, we give ourselves completely. We allow our first friends or first lovers or first songs inside us, to become a part of our unformed being, without ever thinking of the consequences, or of their permanence within us.” 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.

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Member ratings (3,571)

  • Erin S.

    Milton , NH

    A beautiful book full of life lessons about two friends who face the odds to achieve their biggest dreams. This story is about love, loss, friendship and choosing your family when you don’t have one!

  • Kinsey S.

    Mobile, AL

    Beautifully written! I found myself immediately entranced by the author’s eloquent writing. She weaves a masterful tale and I felt as though I were right along side the characters. Could not put down!

  • Chelsea M.

    Vancouver, WA

    Took a long time to get into, but once I finally saw the structure behind the novel...I’m just a sucker for a well-crafted book. The narrative and chronological jumps, the lyrical journey - loved it.

  • Janelle Z.

    Lombard, IL

    Beautiful, lyrical narrative of Brazil’s sights & sounds through the eyes of a perfectly flawed character. A reminder that, despite circumstance, we all yearn for the same thing: acceptance and love.

  • Monica D.

    Sacramento, CA

    The characters and the beautifully sculpted narrative draw you in and hold you tight. While reading anytime I put the book down I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There is so much truth in this book.

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