As Close to Us as Breathing:
Hardback: Little, Brown & Co., 2016
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Reviewed by Roger Dowdy.
How does a book initially capture your attention? By the cover design, or the jacket synopsis, or the opening few pages, or something known about the author? In the case of Elizabeth Poliner’s novel, As Close to Us as Breathing, for me, it was all about the title and the epigraph, of all things! I am endlessly curious about the epigraphs which authors choose for their writing.
Not too long ago Barnes and Noble Book ‘READS’ posted a piece by Hanna McGrath entitled, “15 Epic Epigraphs.” Here is McGrath’s opening blog statement: “Epigraphs are pretty versatile little literary devices. They can be the uncensored mouthpiece of an author…. they can provide insight into the author’s inspiration. The best ones, though, are powerful on their own.”
Elizabeth Poliner’s choice of epigraph and title for her second novel, serve as the ‘key’ to the underlying family-narrative of the book. The novel’s epigraph is drawn from a prayer found in one of several settings of the Shabbat Evening Service: You are as close to us as breathing, yet You are farther than the farthermost star. (From – Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book, 1974, 180). The fascinating bond between this novel’s title and epigraph, manages, through Poliner’s gift of masterful writing, to live implicitly throughout the book as both deep-running thought and insight into the novel’s characters.
In the context of the Shabbat prayer, You signifies that it is God who is closer to us than breathing – a truth for some, but not all, of the novel’s characters, primarily the Leibritsky family. However, in a recent e-mail stream, which I initiated with the author, Elizabeth shared the following personal reflections for which I am grateful:
I came upon the line of prayer that is the novel’s epigraph while attending Yom Kippur services, [in the] fall of 2015. I was searching for a new title – as I had been calling the book “Bagel Beach” but my agent thought that was too light for the book’s “literary heft”. This was just before we were going to send the manuscript out to publishers. When I saw that line of prayer [in the service] I instantly knew this was it. I heard the yearning in it speaking to the Leibritzky family’s loss. In my mind, the youngest son, Davy, is “You” and the line really captures the nearness of the loss and the memories, and the unbearable absoluteness of the loss too.
As a Jewish prayer, the line seemed to also embrace the religiosity of the family, and of course they are battling with “the rules” of that culture throughout the book. It also captured, for Molly [the novel’s narrator], the nearness/farness of all her relatives, even her ancestors, whose stories she is able to understand as part of her understanding of herself. Finally, the phrase captured the special role of ‘breathing’ in the book. Most of the characters have a special place where they can ‘breathe’ more easily, which is to say, where they feel good and free – for Ada (Molly’s matriarch mother) this is Woodmont, for father Mort this is shul, for uncle Nelson, sadly, this is the basement of the family store, etc. I also liked the word “us” [in the prayer], as this really is a collective loss and collective story.
“As Close to Us as Breathing” is an intimate journey with the extended Leibritsky family – a journey set in the summer of 1948 at “Bagel Beach” (a ‘restricted’ shoreline Jewish community) – the location of the Leibritsky summer cottage in Woodmont Connecticut. The story is narrated by Molly – the middle child of three siblings of “rule-driven” father Mort Leibritsky, and “freedom reigns” mother Ada Leibritsky. The Reader engages the story through 12-year-old Molly’s eyes, ears, and experiences- who is now and adult in 1999, and having just inherited her most-loved and free-spirited aunt Bec’s Middletown, CT home. Molly is looking back on the tragic 1948 summer with cousins, aunts, and uncles.
‘Liz’ Poliner’s novel is a story of hope, the desire of freedom and of ‘place’, of longing and trust, of unfolding deep sadness and atonement, and, at times, dismay and impatience over typical but complex human family ‘histories’ – all the while remaining faithful to Jewish practice.
Most significantly, however, is the ‘thread’ which runs in and around the story – a thread exposed in opening sentence of the novel: “The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident with a man who would have given his own life rather than have it happen.”
Poliner, author and teacher of creative writing at Hollins University in the Piedmont of Virginia, offers the reader keen insights of human nature through vivid characterizations and concise writing. Early into the novel, narrator Molly ruminates on personal identity while watching her seven-year-old brother, Davy, and restless older teenage brother, Howard, played a summer evening of ‘catch’:
Had he [Davy] lived to play the game beyond his childhood, there’s no doubt in my mind that Davy was destined to be an outfielder and not the shortstop of my father’s projected dreams. But such is the way of family: we are what they tell us we are, and part of life’s great struggle, it’s always seemed to me, is to know oneself despite that imposing collective definition.
As Close to Us as Breathing is an excellent and enriching reading experience, and worthy of small group reading and reflection on the themes of tragic loss and reconciliation, ‘room to breathe’, extended family/generational dynamics, Judaic practices, choices and personal identity, and the place of religious spirituality in daily life.
Roger Dowdy is Founder and Director of CROSS-PATHS Ministries in Richmond, VA.