Breathless, by Cole Gibsen
Crescent Moon Press, March 2012
Obituary-reading emo girl Edith Small is broken – the end result of forcing herself inside a mold that doesn’t fit. All she wants is to conform to her strict sergeant stepfather’s rules long enough to make it to graduation day.
But a boat accident threatens to unravel the life Edith has worked so hard to keep. After waking up in a hospital with a lacerated shoulder, Edith fakes amnesia. Because admitting she received her injuries from a blue-haired girl who breathes underwater is all the reason Sir needs to send Edith on the first bus to military school.
Safe at home, Edith struggles to put the nightmare behind her. But the mysterious creatures that live in the ocean aren’t about to let her forget.
After meeting Bastin – a strange boy with silver hair and black eyes – on a secluded dock, Edith learns about the war raging undersea to end human existence. A war that Edith, unwittingly, has become the key to winning.
In a world where death is an ever-present shadow and motives are as dark as the bottom of the ocean, Edith must decide if her life is worth risking for a love that can’t survive past the shore.
Edith Small is on a boat with a trio of obnoxious, spoiled rich kids, one of whom is intent on getting into her bathing suit, and she’s counting minutes until her feet are back on solid ground and walking away from the losers. Well past the watching eyes of the Coast Guard, Gabrielle, a bitch of a cheerleader, pulls out her boyfriend’s pot and the other kids light up. The irony is not lost on Edith. She is only on this boat because her uber-strict drill sergeant father finds her habit of keeping to herself and reading obituaries deviant, and he insisted that she make friends at her new school. Friends like this kids who are on this boat…the outwardly clean-cut children of Air Force personnel, athletes, cheerleaders…kids about which Edith now knows her step-father is very much mistaken. The three kids are annoyed that her prudish behavior is ruining their boat ride. They pressure her to drink and smoke so she’ll lighten up. Edith doesn’t, knowing everything happening on that boat will earn a one-way trip to military school.
When a bigger boat comes along side, this one driven by a richer kid and carrying more athletes and cheerleaders, the drivers decide to race. Gabrielle decides to dance on the edge of their boat, Edith fears the girl’s boyfriend, Russell, is too drunk and driving too fast to control the boat when it turns. She tries to pull Gabrielle down and is rewarded with a kick in the face. Gabrielle goes overboard. In shock, Russell takes his hands off the wheel. Their boat plows into larger vessel and all of the kids are thrown into the ocean.
Edith sees Gabrielle’s twisted body hanging on the buoy. She hears someone yell “sharks.” She’s pulled under, but not by a fish. A woman with blue hair and black eyes claws at her, cutting up her chest and breaking her collarbone. She wakes up on land and is barely conscious while overhearing an argument between a man named Bastin and a woman he calls Luna. The woman wants to kill Edith, but Bastin won’t allow it. When Edith next awakes, she is in the hospital. Her cold-fish step-dad demands to know what happened on the boat. When he informs her that the other kids died, she pretends to not remember.
Breathless is a sweet young adult romance between a psychologically broken teen girl and a mer prince with whom she has very much in common. They are both disappointments to their fathers. They both want things they cannot have. This latter point becomes a central theme of the book as they are prevented from having a relationship that ventures far from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. He cannot walk on land during daylight hours. Despite Edith begging him to take her home with him, Bastin knows that she would be only be trading her soul-crushing home life for the actual crushing depths of the ocean. His love for her is such that he would break both of their hears before condemning her to centuries of excruciating pain.
Edith and Bastin enjoy a weeks or so of discovering each other and falling in love in the other’s arms. Her time with him on a weathered dock in the bayou near her family’s rented home is a reprieve from her daily routine. Before the boat accident, she was living for the day when she’d go to college and finally be free to be her own person. But with Bastin, she lives for the first time since her younger brother died. She’s a girl with a handsome boy’s attention. He touches her, holds her, kisses her, and in all makes her feel special.
For Bastin, she learns later, things are a little more complicated. He doesn’t have her hang-ups regarding affection and intimacy. Coming from a world that has not concept of modesty, where reproduction is no more special than farming, Bastin’s attraction to her is born of curiosity. His desire is for the experience. Over time, this changes, and his interest evolves into true feelings for specifically her, something that his mermaid companion Luna finds wholly disgusting.
Out of the water, Edith is tormented by kids who believe she caused the accident that killed her classmate. She’s hounded by the step-father who is eagerly waiting for an excuse to send her away. She has one friend, a spirited lesbian named Morgan, whose father is the base commander. Between her nightly rendezvous with Bastin and her skipping school with Morgan, Edith’s enrollment in military school is simply a matter of when.
Breathless is a beautiful novel written with great attention to small details. Edith is a girl surviving on her ability to be small, keep to herself, and quietly bide her time. The atmosphere of around Edith…in her home, at school, with Bastin and Morgan…it’s palpable.
Edith’s loneliness is something that I can relate to as a formerly awkward teen. Her attraction to charming, funny, gorgeous Bastin is not at all surprising. Understanding the obstacle between them is governed by the laws of physics, my heart broke on every page.
I’d recommend Breathless to every teen girl who thinks they can’t live without the boy they love right this minute. You can. You will.