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How to Breathe Underwater: Stories


How to Breathe Underwater: Stories Cover



Reading Group Guide

1. “Pilgrims”

• Who are the “pilgrims” of the story, and what makes them pilgrims?

• What might Ellas lost tooth symbolize?

• What keeps the children in the story from telling their parents immediately about Claries death?

• How is this story different in tone and feeling from the other stories? How does Orringer use setting, imagery, and other narrative techniques to evoke the savagery of the children?

2. “When She Is Old and I Am Famous”

• Are the talented girls in “Note to Sixth-Grade Self,” “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” and “The Isabel Fish” more able to cope with their circumstances than the less obviously accomplished characters in “Care” or “Stars of Motown Shining Bright”?

3. “The Isabel Fish”

• What did Isabel mean to Maddy? What did Isabel mean to Sage?

• Is it grief, jealousy, or something else that makes Sage kill Maddys fighting fish?

• What role do the parents in this story play in their childrens lives? How is their role different from the parents in the other stories?

4. “Note to Sixth-Grade Self”

• What are the mechanics of peer pressure as portrayed in this story? How can parents respond effectively? What makes some young girls better able to cope or revolt than others? Compare the role of peer pressure in this story to the peer pressure in “Stations of the Cross.” Does it change when the girls are older, as in “Stars of Motown Shining Bright”?

5. “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones”

• What does Rebecca represent to the Orthodox Jewish community that she visits for the summer?

• How is Judaism portrayed in this story? How do religion and morality intersect, and how do they diverge? Orringer has alluded in interviews to being Jewish. How does she celebrate or criticize her Jewish heritage in her stories? [See online interview with Robert Birnbaum, and The Morning News, “Birnbaum v. Julie Orringer,” October 22, 2003.]

6. “Care”

• What is the meaning of the title of this story? Does the word “care” capture the nature of family love as portrayed in the story—fraught with obligations, jealousies, and pressure to live up to expectations? Does this title apply to other stories in the collection as well?

• How do Tessas feelings toward her sister compare to Miras feelings toward Aïda in “When She Is Old and I Am Famous”?

• How might Tessa survive—or learn to breathe underwater? Does the story provide any hope for her future?

7. “Stars of Motown Shining Bright”

• What is the narrative effect of giving a character like Lucy a gun? Does Lucys unfamiliarity with urban violence make the weapon more or less dangerous in her hands? How does the gun change the power dynamic within the story?

• Is the relationship between Lucy and Melissa an accurate portrait of friendship between teenage girls? What is the nature of such a relationship? How does it compare to the relationship between the cousins in “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones” or in “When She Is Old and I Am Famous”? How do these relationships between the teenage girls compare to the relationship between brother and sister, as portrayed in “The Isabel Fish”?

8. “What We Save”

• What does Helena save of her mother? What does her mother save of herself? How will Helenas adolescence be even more difficult with the loss of her mother? 

• How does Jeremy and Louiss sexual taunting of Helena play into the themes of this story?

9. “Stations of the Cross”

• Why do Carney and Lila behave the way they do toward Dale Fortunot, and how is their behavior similar to or different from the way the children behave toward each other in “Pilgrims”? Is there ever any circumstance in which behavior like that can be justified or understood?

• This is the only story told from the viewpoint of an adult in which she retrospectively judges her behavior as a child. How does this narrative point of view affect the tone of this story and differentiate it from the other stories?

10. For discussion of How to Breathe Underwater

• In an interview in which Orringer spoke of the themes of her story collection, she mentioned “young women entering a point in their lives when theyre asked to make what seems like an impossible transition” [“An Interview with Julie Orringer and Vendela Vida” by Dave Weich on, September 10, 2003]. What are the “impossible transitions” the young girls of Orringers stories are being asked to make? What helps Orringers characters finally “breathe underwater”? Do the girls learn to breathe on their own, or do they rely on the assistance of others?

• A recurring theme in the stories is the difficulty the children have in communicating with the people closest to them. Are these communication breakdowns caused by generation gaps or by other circumstances? Are the childrens deepest thoughts and feelings apparent at all to the adults around them? Would better communication make a difference in their lives?

• The ages of the central female characters in the stories range from nine- and ten-year-olds (“Pilgrims” and “Stations of the Cross”) all the way to the twenty-year-olds (“When She Is Old and I Am Famous” and “Care”). Do you notice a progression in the stories as the younger characters evolve into older girls? Is there a noticeable point or age at which the girls begin to lose their innocence?

• How does the choice of narrative voice, i.e., first person (“When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” “The Isabel Fish,” “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones,” “Stations of the Cross”), second person (“Note to Sixth-Grade Self”) or third person (“Pilgrims,” “Care,” “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” “What We Save”), change the tone of the stories? Does the choice of narrative voice affect the readers ability to relate to or empathize with the characters?

• How does the mothers illness or death affect each family in “Pilgrims,” “What We Save,” “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones,” and “Care”? How do the experiences of the children differ? Do Ella and her brother (“Pilgrims”) find different means of coping than Helena and Margot (“What We Save”)?

• What images of teenage boys emerge from the stories, in particular Sage in “The Isabel Fish,” Dovid Frankel in “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones,” Jeremy and Louis in “What We Save,” Jack Jacob in “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” and Eric Cassio in “Note to Sixth-Grade Self?” How do the male characters give us insight into the actions and personalities of the girls? Why do these males find themselves in conflict with the girls?

• The fathers in the stories are effectively absent (e.g., “Stations of the Cross”), helpless (e.g., “Pilgrims” and “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones”), or both (e.g., “What We Save” and “Care”), but they are all typically well meaning (e.g., “The Isabel Fish”). What keeps these fathers from paying closer attention to their daughters, or from being better able to serve their emotional needs?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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S_Ava, February 27, 2012 (view all comments by S_Ava)
This is one of my favorite collections of short stories. Orringer has a keen eye for detail and dares to to create characters that might termed, "unlikable," if one believed in that term in the first place. There's not one clunker here, but standout stories for me are, "When She is Old and I am Famous," "The Isabel Fish" and "The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones." Great stories with great titles.
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Product Details

Orringer, Julie
Vintage Books
Julie Ellen Orringer
Short Stories (single author)
Short stories
Stories (single author)
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.15 x 1.25 in .5 lb

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

How to Breathe Underwater: Stories Used Trade Paper
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Product details 240 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9781400034369 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

The opening story of Julie Orringer's debut collection is a truly original variant on the Gothic tale, set in the unlikely jungle of a New Orleans back yard. Another piece reconstructs the trials of one girl's adolescence in the form of a corrective letter to her younger self. Propelled by knowing, captivating voices, Orringer's sentences practically cartwheel down the page.

"Review" by , "Julie Orringer is the real thing, a breathtaking chronicler of the secrets and cruelties underneath the surface of middle-class American life. These are terrific stories–wise, compassionate and haunting."
"Review" by , "In How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer delves into the complex lives of girls and young women, and with uncommon courage and exceptional clarity she shows us what she finds: passionate, often disturbing feelings of longing and jealousy and grief; an intense struggle to make sense of the unfathomable world of adults, and above all a determination to survive. These are tough, beautiful stories, piercing and true, and they mark the debut of an exceptionally gifted writer."
"Review" by , "Intelligent, heartfelt stories that tell a whole new set of truths about growing up American. Julie Orringer writes with virtuosity and depth about the fears, cruelties, and humiliations of childhood, but then does that rarest, and more difficult, thing: writes equally beautifully about the moments of victory and transcendence."
"Review" by , "These are wonderful stories. There is a headlong narrative energy in Julie Orringer's stories that I find quite remarkable, and it is combined with a tremendous intelligence about the behavoir of children and adolescents."
"Review" by , "A stunning debut."
"Review" by , "[A] fine book of stories...clear-eyed precision makes Orringer's debut as heartbreaking as it is clever."
"Review" by , "[Orringer's] short stories are exceptionally translucent, deep, and fluid....[A] sensuous yet edgy fictional universe....Orringer's unnerving and fiercely beautiful stories delve to the very core of life's mysteries."
"Review" by , "[T]hese stories have a curious power. They sound utterly authentic; Orringer hardly ever misjudges a scene or a line of dialogue....[S]omething altogether magical. Like all good short stories, these make you yearn for novels."
"Synopsis" by , Nine fiercely beautiful, impossible-to-put-down stories from a young writer who has already received immediate worldwide attention. Julie Orringer’s characters–all of them submerged by loss, whether of parents or lovers or a viable relationship to the world in general–struggle mightily against the wildly engulfing forces that threaten to overtake us all. All of them learn, gloriously if at great cost, how to breathe underwater.

In “Pilgrims,” a band of motherless children torment each other on Thanksgiving day. In “The Isabel Fish,” the sole survivor of a drowning accident takes up scuba diving. In “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” a young woman confronts the inscrutable power of her cousin’s beauty (“Aïda. That is her terrible name. Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity”). In “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones,” the failure of religious and moral codes–to protect, to comfort, to offer solace–is seen through the eyes of a group of Orthodox Jewish adolescents discovering the irresistible power of their burgeoning sexuality.

In story after story, Orringer captures moments when the dark contours of the adult world come sharply into focus: Here are young people abandoned to their own devices, thrust too soon into predicaments of insoluble difficulty, and left to fend for themselves against the wide variety of human trouble. Buoyed by the exquisite tenderness of remembered love, they learn to take up residence in this strange new territory, if not to transcend it, and to fashion from their grief new selves, new lives. Orringer’s debut collection blazes with emotion, with human appetite, with fortitude, with despair; these nine uncommonly wise and assured stories introduce an astonishing new talent.

From the Hardcover edition.

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