In Breathe, Annie, Breathe, the main character is a 17-year-old girl facing one of life’s cruelest moments: The boy she loved, her boyfriend of three years, died in a tragic accident. Annie’s whole life had revolved around Kyle. The two were inseparable, and so long as Annie had Kyle, she didn’t need other friends or anything else in her life.
As we meet Annie, Kyle has been dead for about six months, and Annie can barely function. Somehow she’s arrived at the idea that to honor Kyle’s memory, she’ll run the marathon he’d wanted to run but didn’t live long enough to accomplish. Annie is not a runner, however, so she joins a training program where, over the course of six months, she’ll push her body and mind into shape for the upcoming October marathon.
At first, she’s in constant pain and doesn’t believe she can do it. But her stubborn determination that she has to do this for Kyle keeps her moving forward. And then, on the trail, she encounters Jeremiah, the adrenaline-junkie brother of her running coach, and she feels something that she never thought she’d feel again. Sparks fly. It doesn’t hurt that he’s gorgeous and muscle-y, and seems instantly drawn to Annie as well.
Stop rolling your eyes! My description might make this book sound run-of-the-mill, but it’s not. True, on the surface, it’s “poor bereaved girl learns to love again”, and that’s been done before. But there are many elements that make Breathe, Annie, Breathe a cut above typical YA fare.
For starters, Annie herself is an interesting, conflicted, smart girl who doesn’t always make good choices. She’s the daughter of a single mom, Annie’s dad having walked out before she can even remember, and she, her mom, and her brother live in a trailer park. And that’s totally okay — Annie doesn’t feel shame, and the trailer park isn’t the stereotypical redneck, trashy place that you see in so many books and movies.
Because of her low economic status, Annie has to work for whatever she wants. She sees herself as weak many times, but it takes a lot of strength and commitment to do what she’s doing. The only way she can afford her running program is through hard work. Every shift at the restaurant matters; every bit of her tip money is accounted for, whether it’s her running gear, her living expenses for college the next year, or the cost of her school books. Annie doesn’t begrudge her mother anything or resent anyone — this is just her life, and she deals with it.
For another thing, Kyle is never torn down or criticized. In many books, the heroine finally moves on when she realizes that the dead boyfriend/lover/husband isn’t as perfect as she’s made him out to be. Not here. Kyle wasn’t perfect, but neither was Annie. Their relationship had flaws, but Annie does not for a moment stop wishing that they could have had the life they’d dreamed of. She moves forward by cherishing her memories of Kyle while also setting her sights on a life that no longer revolves around him.
From the early descriptions, I thought Jeremiah would be the bad-boy-saved-by-a-good-girlfriend stereotype, but that’s also not the case. Jeremiah is a great guy, a Southern gentleman, whose only flaw is his need to do extreme sports, to the extent that he’s been hurt so many times that his mother has kicked him out unless he promises to slow it down. He treats Annie with the utmost respect, and there’s never a doubt that he’ll be good to her and for her.
An added element that really makes this book a treat is the community it’s set in. Miranda Kenneally’s books take place in small-town Tennessee, with a rural setting, a close-knit community, and a Southern sensibility that involves hospitality and good manners. Characters from her previous novels show up in minor roles in Breathe, Annie, Breathe — but it doesn’t matter if you’ve read those books or not. It’s like getting a visit from old friends, which makes it fun if you recognize them, but their backstories don’t contribute to the plot of Breathe, Annie, Breathe in any way that would be confusing to someone unfamiliar with them.
I really enjoyed Breathe, Annie, Breathe. Annie’s emotional journey is portrayed with sensitivity, and her struggles and conflicts feel real. The guilt she feels over her attraction toward Jeremiah, the growing awareness that she needs to rebuild her life, reconnect with the friends she lost over the years by her own negligence, and think about what she truly wants for her future — all seem realistic and are easy to relate to. Meanwhile, Annie’s running journey is the backbone of the story, and it’s fascinating and inspiring to see how a person can transform herself if she’s willing to commit and throw herself into it.
Although categorized as young adult fiction, I’m not entirely sure that that’s the right place for this book. It skews a little older than YA, covering both the end of high school and the start of college. The sexual content is somewhat more explicit than I’ve seen in a lot of the contemporary YA that I’ve read lately, all of which seem to be more focused on flirting, popularity, and high school drama rather than on actual relationships with emotional and physical connections.
I’ve read one other book by Miranda Kenneally, Racing Savannah (reviewed here last year), and after reading Breathe, Annie, Breathe, I’d like to read more. Her books center on girls striving for success in typically male-dominated athletic pursuits, while at the same time sorting out their lives, their dreams, and their relationships.
In Breathe, Annie, Breathe, the story is quick-moving, but doesn’t skimp on emotional challenges or character development. Annie is a terrific main character, and readers will be cheering for her to succeed, in running and in rebuilding her life. The book tackles the subject of terrible loss without becoming maudlin; instead, the loss is acknowledged and honored in a way that feels appropriate and respectful. I recommend Breathe, Annie, Breathe — and Miranda Kenneally’s work in general — for readers who enjoy their YA a little on the older side.
A final, personal note: I hate to say it, but I’m mostly a couch potato at this point, with my exercise routine limited to long walks on the weekends and not much else. I loved reading about Annie’s training, though — and this book has made me start thinking that I should break out my old running shoes and give it another go!
Title: Breathe, Annie, Breathe
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: July 15, 2014
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction