There are a few things that really attract me to a novel - family secrets, close sisters, an idyllic summer setting, the 1940's, and love stories. As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner ticks off every item on that list. Engaging and lyrical, with complex characters and an extremely
well-executed plot with many moving pieces, I could not put this book down.
Opening in the summer of 1948 in the beach-side town of Woodmont, Connecticut, we are introduced to 12-year old Molly Leibritsky and part of her extended family as they arrive at the cottage purchased by her maternal grandfather in 1914. First, we have her mother, the beautiful and charismatic Ada. Then Ada's sister, Vivie, and her bookish teenaged daughter, Nina. Finally, Molly's two brothers: Harold, the eldest, and ten-year-old Davey - the jewel of the family. They're later joined by Ada and Vivie's youngest sister, Bec, an unmarried woman, and husbands Mort and Leo, who travel to the beach for the weekends.
What makes this story so compelling is that in the first few pages you learn that a terrible tragedy occurs at the beach late that summer - Davey, the youngest and most beloved of the group, is killed. As the rest of the book unfolds, you're taken into the past and into the future. You learn about each of the sisters in turn, how they came to find themselves where they are in 1948. You discover the event, caused by Ada, that almost ruined her relationship with Vivie. You learn how Vivie has picked up the pieces of her life since then and has found herself happier than her middle sister will ever be. We see that Bec, while she gives off the appearance of a spinster aunt, is hiding a great, but potentially ruinous, love. Molly also takes us through the events of the summer of 1948, leading up to the accident. The tensions in the family are rising, and we're given little hints throughout about what actually happens on the terrible day in question. Before we find out however, we're taken into the future as well, to see how the various family members deal with the tragedy throughout their lives. Everyone blames themselves in some way and this crushing guilt and grief define how they live the rest of their lives.
The way that Poliner tells this story, showing us the aftermath of the accident before we see what actually happens, is completely enthralling. You know that everyone blames themselves, but you don't know why and you don't know who is actually to blame. All of the characters aere written so well and are so complex, the relationships so rich and believable. I truly could not put this book down until I was finished, I just had to know what happened next and unravel the mystery of Davey's death.
If you've finished this one and are looking for something similar, check out:
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart takes place in a similar setting (this time a private island instead of just a cottage by the beach), and also deals with family secrets and a great tragedy. Coincidentally, I picked this up immediately after finishing As Close to Us as Breathing, and it was even more of a page turner!
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean tells the story of Marina, and her youth during the seige of Leningrad. This character driven novel also flits back and forth between the past and the present, and takes place during the 1940's.
The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver tells the story of the Porter family, who spends summers at Ashaunt Point. An unsettling event in the summer of
1942 changes things for the family, and the rest of the novel details how the family makes their way through the rest of the century.