Happy New Year! (Doesn’t living in 2016 make you feel like you should be in a science fiction novel?) I reread Hannibal as my last book of 2015, but the reflection post I meant to type is proving to be difficult. It will probably be up sometime, if anyone cares.
On to the review.
Title: Hold Me Like a Breath
Author: Tiffany Schmidt
Length: 390 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
Penelope Landlow is tired of living the sheltered life of an invalid on her father’s New York estate. Seventeen and suffering from a chronic blood disease that makes her prone to bruises and bloody noses, she is treated as literally untouchable by her crime-boss father. She spends her time reading fairy tales and daydreaming about New York City. Things seem to be looking up for Penelope: her health is improving, and she finally has the courage to ask her parents for permission to attend high school off of the estate in the fall. But everything changes on the day she discovers her brother’s body.
It figures that my first book of 2016, one I had been really looking forward to, turned out to be such a huge disappointment.
Coming as it did on the heels of one of my favorite-ever books, I guess disappointment was inevitable. I’ve begun to seriously question whether or not it’s time to give up on YA. I would miss some gems, but of the 40 YA books I reviewed here in 2015, I gave just 19 of them (47.5% if you’re keeping score at home) more than a three-star rating.
“This isn’t The Godfather, Pen.” (30)
You could say that again. Hold Me Like a Breath, despite its captivating title and promising subject matter, turned out to be less of a thriller than it was a cliched YA romance.
The narrator, Penelope, spent most of the novel being annoying, whiny, and self-pitying (and sometimes self-destructive). The fact that she was chronically ill did, of course, make her more sympathetic. But not to the point that I wanted to read page after page of her moaning about how no one ever lets her do anything interesting and no one ever touches her and she just isn’t living! Instead of doing making the best of her life by pursing intellectual or other non-physical goals (music, art, writing, charity work, anything!), she obsessively pines for the Big Apple. After the death of her brother (within the first hundred pages), she acts frustrated by everyone calling her useless and a puppet…
But then when she–and therefore the reader–has the opportunity to learn more about the illicit Family organ transplant business:
I smiled at Garrett, then let my attention wander. (122)
Other than the occasional mention of the Organ Act–which would allow the Family to operate legally–and new synthetic organ technology being developed by the other Families and what impact all these things would have on the Landlows, Penelope never delves into details. She’s too busy thinking about NYC and how great her bodyguard Garrett is, or else remembering some tragic incident demonstrating her debilitating fragility. As a result, this story’s “crime family” label is just window-dressing.
Hold Me is also supposed to be a fairy tale retelling. I’m not familiar with “The Princess and the Pea,” which it apparently references, but after several mentions by Penelope, some heavy-handed parallels between her story and “Rapunzel” did become clear to me.
Penelope’s condition is not the problem. She could have been an interesting character regardless if she had done any of the intellectual or artistic things I mentioned above. But she doesn’t work here. A story about a crime family opens the door for many moral and ethical questions as well as great, heart-pounding action.
Yet the narrator is too sheltered, too naive, and too wrapped up in herself to give readers insight into the former. And because she is fragile to the point that holding hands can leave her with nasty bruises, there is very little of the latter, either.
I doubt that such complex moral issues, or even a bit of violence, would be somehow too weighty or inappropriate for YA. (It’s worth mentioning that there is some danger and bloodshed, but most of it happens off-screen.) After all, Barry Lyga’s excellent I Hunt Killers is YA, and it’s full-on murder mystery thriller (complete with all the gore that implies).
Don’t look for any of that here, though. Most of the novel consists of Penelope…
- walking around (her family estate and NYC);
- feeling sorry for herself;
- thinking about/talking to a boy; OR
Interspersed among these long stretches of bo-ring are a few action sequences. Penelope only takes part in one of them. The rest feel like they were tossed in for shock value.
What makes it worse is that Penelope’s voice is so indistinct. Stylistically, Schmidt’s writing is almost identical to that found in most of the other first-person YA novels published in the last five years. I’m getting tired of reading different stories told by the girls who all sound the same.
And the rest of the characters are no better. Garrett rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. He calls her “princess” and is way too overprotective, nearly possessive, of her. It’s creepy. Garrett’s father is an obvious snake and all of his brothers are sexist, condescending pigs (not that Penelope ever does anything to prove her worth or value to the Family). Penelope’s parents, paranoid about her health, are the worst offenders when it comes to infantilizing and dismissing her.
Her other love interest, Char (gag), is almost as bad. He follows her to her NYC apartment, and when she finds him waiting outside, she scolds him a little, then gushes about how dreamy he is. (Needless to say, Penelope isn’t the brightest.) There is a very obvious twist concerning Char, but like so much of this novel, it was de-fanged and boring.
Penelope falls in total insta-love with Char. As in most YA romances, they proceed to blubber about being “in love”and the rest of their lives
despite Penelope suggesting she marry Garrett just a few chapters earlier. The only saving grace of the dreadful romance in this book is that it’s never treated like a love triangle.
It might be nitpicky, but the other problem I had with the book was how plainly unrealistic it often was.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***
For instance, another woman’s dead body is mistaken for Penelope’s and even bury her as Penelope just because they have similar coloring. That would never happen, not in a world with fingerprinting and DNA analysis! And then there was this conversation Penelope has with the Vice President, a family friend, after arriving in NYC following the massacre at the Landlow estate:
“Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I-I can’t tell you where I am. I don’t dare.”
“Yes, that’s probably best.” (195)
Yes, Penelope’s life is in danger at this point. I get that. But she acts helpless, as though she has nowhere to turn–all while talking to the goddamn Vice. President. Of. The United. States! And said Veep responds with “That’s probably best”?!
A totally inexperienced seventeen-year-old with a serious medical condition whose family has just been murdered hiding alone in parts unknown is “probably best”? God’s sake, man, send the FBI! Send the Secret Service! SEND SOMEONE!
Really, with all the “coincidences” that happened in the book, I could only suspend my disbelief so far.
Hold Me Like a Breath was very, very disappointing and only mildly entertaining. It wasted a good premise and a great title on lackluster characters, romance, and plot. No, it definitely isn’t The Godfather. (That said, The Godfather could have been this dull and toothless…but only if it had been narrated by Connie Corleone.) The best I can say is that it was a quick read.