The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water // by Erin Bartels

//published 2022//

Fear not, friends, I am still planning to post a Rearview Mirror for both December 2021 and for 2021 as a whole (because I know you’re all dying to know whether my overall TBR went up or down for the year lol), but first I am going to review this one, as it was provided to me by Revell in exchange for a review.

Kendra, our narrator, grew up spending her summers on a lake in northern Michigan, where she always hung out with her summer best friend, Cami.  Cami’s family cabin was across the lake from Kendra’s grandpa’s cabin and the girls played together every year.  In the present day, Kendra has recently published a book that has sold very well, but is struggling to write her second novel.  Her grandpa has recently passed away, leaving his cabin to her, so she returns to the lake for the first time in years, hoping that facing some old demons will help her clear her writer’s block.

From the blurb, I thought this book was going to be a bit more thriller-y.  No one has seen Cami in months, there are allusions to Cami’s older brother, Tyler, being a nefarious character, and the cover/title combo just felt ominous.  But there isn’t any mysterious aspect to this story at all.  It’s more or less a straight novel about a woman struggling with her past and the way that it impacts her present.  The rest of this review will have some content/trigger warnings/spoilers, as it’s difficult to review this story without referring to them.  Many of these things you get the impression about in the first few chapters so they aren’t SUPER spoilery, but I know some people prefer zero knowledge going into a book, so if that’s you… skip this review haha

The blurb for the book says that Kendra wants to confront Tyler, who was the inspiration for the antagonist of her first book, but doesn’t say what he supposedly did.  As the story unwinds, it becomes obvious that he sexually assaulted her while she was still in her early teens (he was four or five years older than her).  The book Kendra wrote is fictional, but has many parallel characters to her own youth and experiences with Tyler.  Kendra’s current writing block was triggered by an anonymous letter that she received from “A VERY DISAPPOINTED READER” who basically tells her that she’s self-absorbed and doesn’t realize that everyone has a story, including perceived antagonists.  In fact, Disappointed Reader says, Kendra herself could be the antagonist to someone else’s story.

There were a lot of things about this story that I actually liked.  The setting, Kendra’s struggles, and some of the secondary characters were very well done.  I did struggle because Kendra is telling her story to Cami, so this book was both first and second person.  It’s not clear who Kendra is talking to at first, and it felt weird at times for her to be referring to “your dad” or “your house” etc.  But it was also a rather creative way to tell the story so I was overall willing to roll with it.  This means that we’re entirely in Kendra’s head, while she’s discovering things about herself and her past and those around her, and I can’t decide if it made Kendra more of a sympathetic character, or just emphasized how self-absorbed she really could be.

The dark parts of the story got darker than I was anticipating.  Tyler actually rapes Kendra, and while it’s not graphic, it’s there.  Considering there isn’t even a hint in the blurb that this story deals with the sexual abuse of a minor, a young teen being raped on the page was a bit more than I was expecting to grapple with in this story.  In many ways, this book is actually about the horrific cycle of sexual abuse and how difficult it can be to break free from that.  Overall, I thought that the topic was handled very well.  Kendra really struggles with not wanting to “rock the boat” by telling anyone what is going on with Tyler when she’s young, and, as an adult, wrestles a lot with “was I asking for it” kind of questions that felt realistic.  There’s a lot of discussion about how even though someone’s actions can be explained, it doesn’t mean they can be justified.

I struggled with the love interest part of this story.  It honestly didn’t fit with the rest of what was going on.  Later in the story, when Andreas explains how he ended up becoming the German translator for Kendra’s book, it honestly did feel weird and stalkerish to me.  He was a nice guy and all, but the parts with her falling in love with him felt the most contrived.  Bartels did a good job of not making him what “fixes” Kendra, but I still just felt like we didn’t need him in the story at all, especially since he kept freaking saying things in German that aren’t translated.  Instead, he’ll say a whole long couple of sentences in German and Kendra is just like “I didn’t know what it mean but…” blah blah blah.  If you didn’t know what it mean, how do you remember it WORD FOR WORD?!  I would have been far less aggravated if Bartels had said something like, “he murmured a German phrase – I didn’t know what it mean, but the warmth of his tone made the meaning clear.”  Instead, I’m stuck getting up off the couch trying to translate what the heck he’s saying.  It was so annoying.  It wasn’t like it happened ten times, but it did happen at least five times, and that was way too many.

My final niggle with this story is once again a personal preference.  This book is published by Revell.  When I read a Revell book, I expect there to be at least some reference to faith.  Here, in a story with so much darkness and despair, was an amazing opportunity for Kendra (and others) to find true healing and understanding.  Instead, there is not a single mention of Christianity whatsoever, beyond maybe a mumbled prayer at some point.  That may have been why the Andreas storyline low-key annoyed me.  Replacing a love interest with Kendra coming to God would have made this entire story much more readable.  Instead, because we never see the characters place their story into any kind of eternal context, it’s an overall downer – a sad and depressing story with a sad and depressing ending.  As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if Bartels was trying to make Andreas a kind of Jesus-analogy-figure with his unconditional love and acceptance??  Maybe??  But I would have preferred to see some real Jesus in Kendra’s life.

I didn’t hate this book, and a large part of the reason I didn’t really like it was because it wasn’t really “my” kind of book.  It was a lot darker than I was expecting, and even though Kendra comes to some peace with her past, I was left feeling depressed about her whole story.  Not a bad read, but not a book that made me want to see what else Bartels has written.