Cbr15bingo South America Bingo!
When I was looking around for a book to fill the South America square on my bingo card, I came across Frances De Pontes Peebles’ The Air You Breathe. NPR’s reviewer compared it to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend series and said that they tore through this novel in 2 nights. It is similar in some ways to Ferrante’s work, and I likewise finished it within days. The Air You Breathe is a soap opera of a story about friendship and jealousy set against a backdrop of political repression in Brasil in the 1930s and ‘40s. And it involves music, the rise of samba, Brasil’s native music, to be precise.
The Air You Breathe is the story of two young women, seemingly completely different from one another, who become friends in childhood, bonding through their love of music. Dores was born on a sugar cane plantation in northeastern Brazil in 1920. Her mother was a field worker with a bad reputation, her father is unknown, but Dores does have slightly dark skin. Dores is taken in by the master’s cook Nena and raised to be a servant until a new master takes over the plantation. Senhor Pimentel and his wealthy wife arrive in the later 1920s with their daughter Gracas in tow. Gracas is light skinned and spoiled, and Dores’ first interactions with her are combative, but Gracas is bored and needs a friend, and thus the two begin their friendship. Gracas, the Little Miss, gets whatever she wants and so Dores, aka “Jega” or the donkey, is freed from her chores to play with Gracas and eventually to be privately tutored alongside her. Thanks to the Senhora, Gracas and Dores are exposed to music and even attend a concert. Both girls possess musical talent but as time passes, we learn that Gracas has an extraordinary voice and the makings of a diva.
Death, the Depression and the Pimentels’ falling fortunes lead the Senhor to move quickly once Gracas is a teenager to ensure that she marries well. It is important to note that in Brasil, women did not have autonomy; a girl was under the authority of her father until she married and then fell under her husband’s authority. For Dores, this was not an issue as she belonged to no one, giving her a freedom that Gracas lacked, but perhaps less imagination. Gracas is determined that they will become a singing sensation in Brasil, and she finds a way to free herself and Dores so that they can pursue their dream. The story of how that happens is quite exciting, and their new life in the slums of Rio is full of colorful characters and danger. It is in this gritty environment that the girls make contact with the gang boss Madame Lucifer and get their first break. This is also where they meet the charismatic guitarist Vinicius, leader of the Blue Moon Band and center of what will become a lovers’ triangle. Gracas and Vinicius are drawn to one another, but Vinicius and Dores develop a strong bond through songwriting. Dores, who is bisexual, is strongly attracted to both Gracas and Vinicius. This plus the jealousy that each young woman feels for the other’s talents will threaten both their friendship and the band, but not before Gracas, now known as Sofia Salvador, takes Brasil and the world by storm.
The novel is narrated by Dores, who is in her 90s and the only member of the band still living. We know from the outset that Gracas died young, but the exact circumstances are not revealed until the end. We know that after her death, Dores and Vinicius came together, each mourning the death of their friend/lover, but we also know that Dores has suffered from substance abuse and addiction, and that she walked away from music for decades before Vinicius drew her back in. The reason for Dores’ troubles is more than just the death of her best friend, as is revealed through Peebles’ expert storytelling.
I knew very little about the political history of Brasil before reading this novel. The Getulio dictatorship ran the country for most of the period in which this story takes place, and that is significant for a few reasons in this story. One is that Getulio’s dictatorship issued a crackdown on outside cultural influences and promoted native culture, which contributed to the growth of samba and samba bands. Another is that during WWII, the United States’ “Good Neighbor” policy promoted better relations with South American countries and courted the likes of Getulio. Getulio’s willingness to cooperate with the US meant that cultural relations opened, and in the novel, it is the reason that Sofia Salvador and The Blue Moon Band are able to go to the US and appear in a series of movies. Peebles in her afterward discusses her interest in the story of Carmen Miranda and what happened to her thanks to the US film industry, essentially turning her into a stereotype or caricature, which is what happens to Sofia as well. The way this plays out in Brasil is significant to the plot of The Air You Breathe.
I was completely riveted by this story and its characters. Gracas and Dores are both sympathetic and aggravating, which makes them feel real. They face dangerous and repressive circumstances with strength and determination, but the reader can see that their fractious relationship will suffer even more as a result. The end is rather sad but the overall story is outstanding. This novel could fit a number of other bingo squares: politics, on the air, queer lives, relation “ship”, on the road.