It’s hardly surprising that Frances de Pontes Peebles’ award-winning debut novel, The Seamstress, was published a decade ago, as her follow-up, a sweeping, cinematic and thoroughly engrossing tale about an enduring friendship and the story of samba, is a mighty accomplishment—the kind of novel that demands ample time to write.
Two girls—beautiful and privileged Graça, who has a captivating singing voice, and orphan Dores, nicknamed “Jega,” which means “donkey” in Portuguese—grow up in the early 20th century on the same sugar plantation in Brazil, which Graça’s family owns. Dores is the more levelheaded and intelligent of the two, and Graça is an impetuous risk-taker. When they first hear music on the radio, their lives are forever changed. As teens, Graça’s rebellious nature wins over her friend, who harbors an unrequited love for her, and they escape via a boarding school trip to Rio de Janeiro’s gritty Lapa neighborhood, with the aim of pursuing their dreams.
Though the girls are originally a musical duo, it’s clear that Graça is the star. She is renamed Sofia Salvador after finding success in a nightclub owned by a local gangster, and Dores cedes the spotlight to write her friend’s songs. Amid a colorful canvas of sex, corruption, drugs and violence, the history of samba unfolds. The young women’s relationship is often strained, but they remain united through ambition.
When Hollywood calls, Sofia Salvador becomes an international star during World War II, a pin-up for the troops à la Carmen Miranda. But there is a price to pay.
The Air You Breathe unfolds from Dores’ first-person perspective as she reflects on her life and losses. A sense of melancholy imbues the tale, but Dores has a compelling and fascinating voice. She is unashamed of her sexuality and confident in her ability to write songs in a male-dominated arena, and her strength and singularity propel this unforgettable novel.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Frances de Pontes Peebles.