Thursday, February 16, 2012

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn


When I recently shifted around a bunch of books on my bookshelf, I foolishly attempted to alphabetize my books. I completely failed at it, but I rediscovered a great book in the process. I was shelving some freebies that I am hanging onto because, even though they don't interest me, I've heard good things about them so...
Anyway, I'm shelving Beastly, that book by Alex Flinn that was made into a movie, when I come across an old favorite of mine by an author also named Alex Flinn. Here's the kind of idiot I am: it doesn't occur to me that these are the same author. Instead, I end up asking, "wow, what a great book this was..." And that was the end of my alphabetizing - the afternoon was stolen by Breathing Underwater.



Here's where I went wrong, Alex Flinn-wise. Despite my knowing, and having known, many female Alexes, I had assumed that Breathing Underwater was written by a man, and that Beastly was written by a woman. The latter because of packaging, but the former, well, it's because the main character, Nick, is written so convincingly, so honestly, and so brutally exposed, I thought only a male author would write a guy like that. Not that women can't write male characters realistically, but, when it comes to a character like Nick, why would they want to?

See, Nick's a jerk. More than that, he's the bad guy in every John Hughes teen film ever; every rich, athletic, control-freak, fist-first asshole to ever grace screens large or small, the kind that either ends up the foil to a nerd/nice guy triumph or ends up with the girl because he never was really that bad to begin with.

Make no mistake, though, Nick's a jerk. He doesn't realize it, though, and you sympathize with him, and hope he comes around, even hope he gets the girl. Until you realize he's more than a jerk, he dangerous-- to himself, to others-- and, if he can't get his act together, if he can't figure this thing out, then he's doomed to more than the foibles of the above-mentioned cliche's: he's headed for a life of bitter disappointment, violent dead-ends, and even jail.

Breathing Underwater is only 10 years old, but it's a bit out-of-fashion these days: a little more "social issues" and a little less "urban fantasy;" there are no glittering vampires here. And thank you, Alex Flinn and the lost HarperTempest imprint, for that. This kind of bracing reality gets past all the nicely metaphorized "bad-boys" of current teen fantasy trends and confronts the real deal of teen anger, that simmering, seething thing that gnaws and rages in your belly (or at least, it did in me) from about ages 13 to 18.

Which is not to say there's no good teen fantasy out there. I've got an unread book on my shelf by an author I really like-- she wrote Breathing Underwater, so I'm sure it'll be good.


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4 comments:

Biblibio said...

Have you seen the new (awful) reissue cover? Breathing Underwater is unique and wonderful exactly because of the way Flinn gets the reader in Nick's head and makes us see the world through his eyes. It's a book about teenage boys that doesn't have any of the glitz and sugar-coating that many seem to carry with them. The new cover displays everything that is wrong in modern publishing - taking a tough, uncompromising book and slapping on a soft-focus, girl-oriented photo (and an inaccurate blurb, as if to add to the injustice)...

Liviania said...

I enjoy Alex Flinn's fairy tale updates, but I loved her early 'issue' books. Nothing To Lose is another fabulous one with an extremely convincing male narrator. (Though it's more girl-oriented, you might enjoy Breathing Underwater's sequel, Diva.)

Ms. Yingling said...

Because of this book, I assumed Alex was a boy, and it took me a while to make the connection as well. Must say that this makes a good point about the versatility of this author!

Mindy Hardwick said...

I'm so glad there are books such as Breathing Underwater that don't have the vampires and glittering bad boys. I run a writing workshop with teens in juvenile detention and, when we have grants to buy the books, we include YA books in our workshop. We need the realistic books such as Breathing Underwater which helps fuel our writing and reading discussion about anger--something the teens know a lot about!