I have a lot of respect for Jennifer Niven. She is an incredibly brave writer. She writes from her heart, from her soul, from her own personal experiences. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to write the kind of stories she does, about life and love and heartbreak and disappointments and… well, pretty much everything that makes us human.
Niven’s latest novel, Breathless, is no different. Breathless is a powerful story from a young woman who is trying to pick up the pieces after loss. Determined to write her story, she needs to get it all out there – the good, the bad, the ugly, the mess, the invincibility of all of it. And from her story, we learn a very important message about life.
You were my first. Not just sex, although that was part of it, but the first to look past everything else into me. Some of the names and places have been changed, but the story is true. It’s all here because one day this will be the past, and I don’t want to forget what I went through, what I thought, what I felt, who I was. I don’t want to forget you. But most of all, I don’t want to forget me...
For her last summer before college, Claudine Henry and her mother head to a remote island off the Georgia coast. There, amidst the wild beauty of the place, she meets the free spirited Jeremiah Crew. Their chemistry is immediate and irresistible, and even though they both know that whatever they have can only last the summer, maybe one summer is enough . . .
Breathless is a novel with a lot of complex themes, like the nature of innocence, the connection between pain and love, defining sex and virginity. In some ways, it’s a lot like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider, especially in the way it demonstrates the link between love and pain and how one cannot exist without the other. How you can’t shield yourself from pain when you love, and similarly, if you live so cautiously as to not open your heart at all to prevent yourself from getting hurt, you won’t experience love. Not really.
It’s a powerful thing to learn as a young adult. Especially when everything is so new and raw and each new feeling brings a whole set of new questions that we can’t always answer.
The thing is, right at the start of the novel, Niven foreshadows that Breathless will have a defining moment and that Claude is about to embark on a journey – literally and figuratively – that will change her life, and how she proceeds and puts her pieces back together will define her.
“It was one of those tragedies that my mom the writer refers to as a defining moment: that moment when life suddenly changes and you’re left picking up the pieces. She says it’s actually how you pick up the pieces that defines you.”– Jennifer Niven, Breathless
In this way, pain can define a large chunk of who we are, and how we deal with it is up to us. Sometimes we anesthetize, ride it out, embrace it, ignore it, and for most of us, we just try to manage it. The last thing we want to do is let ourselves feel it, so, instead, we push it away, bottle it up and we tell ourselves that we’re managing it. But the truth is, we’re not supposed to be managing it, are we? We’re supposed to be feeling it. Because grief, loss, pain, it is normal.
At first, it doesn’t sound normal, because we spend so much time not doing it. Instead, we shove it all down and either pretend it’s not there or we run from it. Instead of dealing with being hurt and alone and afraid that this horrible, empty feeling is all there is, we run from it. We do whatever it takes to cover it up. But we’re supposed to feel it. It’s supposed to consume us, because it’s the only way to get through it.
“Feel this. Feel every last terrible, uncomfortable, overwhelming part of it. You have to feel it to get to the other side.”– Jennifer Niven, Breathless
We’re supposed to love and hate, and hurt and grieve and break and fall apart. We put ourselves back together again only to fall apart again. That is what it meant to be human. That is humanity. That’s just what being alive is.
What we need to remember, however, is that life changes very quickly. That’s how you stay alive. When it hurts so much you can’t breathe, that’s how you survive. By remembering that one day, somehow, impossibly you won’t feel this way. It won’t hurt this much.
Which brings us to the important message about life that Niven was trying to teach us: Horrible things do happen. Hearts can break, friends can disappoint, life can leave you feeling cheated. Happiness in the face of all that? That’s not the goal. Feeling the horrible and knowing that you’re not going to die from these feelings, that’s the point.
“There are so many things I wish I’d done differently at the time, including with your dad. But we can only pay attention, hope we learn something, try not to fuck up again – at least not in the same exact way – and keep going forward, knowing that we’re absolutely going to fuck up. A lot.”– Jennifer Niven, Breathless
The way to succeed in life, the way to ensure that you’re really living and not just existing, to be able to live every moment to it’s max, is to keep looking for light in the darkest of places without stopping.