The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

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The Air You Breathe is the saga of a turbulent friendship between two women who play pivotal roles the history of samba, the Brazilian urban music that exploded out of the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the mid-20th century. Peebles, author of the award-winning novel The Seamstress, takes readers on an unforgettable adventure with a fearless singer and her talented songwriter as they bring the soulful sounds of samba to the world.

Dores, the songwriter, is an orphan who works as a child laborer in the kitchen of a remote Brazilian sugar plantation. Graça, the singer, is the plantation owner’s spoiled daughter. The girls are the same age, both born in 1920, but the similarities in their lives end there. Dores is skinny, hardworking and unloved while Graça is beautiful, lazy and doted on by generous parents.

The girls form an unlikely friendship when they discover they both like to bend the rules. Later, they develop a shared passion for music when Graça’s mother purchases a gramophone. Graça discovers her voice while Dores uses her love of words and language to write songs that express all the emotions she’s never been able to talk about.

The adventure begins when the friends flee the plantation as teenagers to escape Graça’s impending marriage. Unafraid of hard work, the girls develop a singing act that helps them survive in the rough Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. They form a samba group, the Blue Moon Band, and Graça steps into the spotlight. She changes her name to Sofia Salvador and becomes a singing and dancing sensation while Dores stays in the background, writing songs the public loves and nursing a lifetime crush on her friend.

“Her beauty was not a physical trait,” says Dores. “Her beauty was an influence you fell under–like a stiff drink or a line of sweet flour–infusing you with bravery and wit and affability that you never knew existed inside of yourself until she coaxed it out.”

The friends are ambitious, willing to do almost anything to move to the next level. They form an uneasy partnership with a gangster, Madame Lucifer, based on a real figure in 1930s Rio who dressed in full drag during Carnival. After building a following with their nightclub act, the band makes a record that gets a lot of radio play. Other groups begin to copy the band’s sound and Sofia’s sexy performance style.

When a Hollywood studio comes to Brazil looking for an exotic South American star, Sofia Salvador fits the bill. Peebles has admitted that Sofia’s film persona is based on the late screen star Carmen Miranda, nicknamed “The Brazilian Bombshell,” who performed samba in Hollywood films from the 1930s through the 1950s. Dores and the band follow Graça to California in pursuit of their own dreams. There they find that the celebrity machine is more powerful than they expected and that old rivalries die hard.

A picaresque novel is one that describes the adventures of a roguish hero who lives by his wits, like Don Cervantes and his squire Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. The story of Dores and Graça can be described as a modern picaresque. The rogue streak in Graça makes her bold and brings men to her feet, but she’s her own worst enemy. Although she’s able to draw people close with her music, she’s unable to return the love of her admirers. The fame she longs for leaves her isolated and alone.

Graça’s story is told by Dores, now in her 80s, as a series of memories spanning multiple decades. She is the last surviving member of the Blue Moon Band. Although she has had other loves and successes in her life, she has never forgotten the passion of the music she made with Sofia Salvador or the profound influence her friend had on her life. She speaks with tenderness and regret about the early days on the plantation when their fates were forever changed by their growing friendship.

“When we are young, we give ourselves completely. We allow our first friends or first lovers or first songs inside us to become a part of our unformed being, without ever thinking of the consequences, or of their permanence within us.”

Author Peebles does a beautiful job in using words to describe the music that’s at the heart of the story. The magic of the gramophone and the immediacy of radio are portrayed with striking realism, as are the intimate music sessions that bind together the members of the Blue Moon Band. Samba is the heart of the story, pulling musicians back to the Brazil of their memories. If your idea of a great summer read is a historical novel that takes you to an unfamiliar place and time, be sure to add The Air You Breathe to your summer reading list. ■