Coming Up for Air was released last week, and I don't know how it stacks up against Henry's other novels (having not read them yet). But comparing it to books I've read, it was phenomenal. In the last year, I've read a lot of books I liked, and several that I loved. I looked back at my Goodreads list, and I found no more than five books I rated with five stars since January. Many with three and four; only a handful with five. Among those were The Hunger Games, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, State of Wonder, and I Thought You Were Dead. Now Coming Up for Air makes the five-star ranks, as well.
Some novels seem trite, full of oft-used, worn-out phrases that simply don't resonate with readers. Patti Callahan Henry writes with such beauty that it feels as though she is inventing new phrases -- writing immense human truths, and expressing them in new ways.
Coming Up for Air is in many ways a character study. Although other characters float through the novel's pages, main character and narrator Ellie Calvin dominates Henry's latest work. She can be described by many terms: artist, mother, daughter, wife, friend. However, Coming Up for Air isn't the story of Ellie as any of those things. Instead, it is the simple story of Ellie as she embarks upon a journey full of self-discovery and possibly an answer to the age-old question about the meaning of life.
After the death of her mother, Ellie struggles to regain her footing in the life she has lived for so long. Through a request by an old friend to research her mother's historical contributions for an Atlanta History Museum exhibit, Ellie examines herself, as well as her mother. Her journey takes her out of the city rush of Atlanta and to Bayside, a quaint beachside community on the Alabama shore. Her best friend's mother Birdie -- also her mother's best friend -- lives year-round in Bayside at the family's Summer House, and she welcomes Ellie with open arms.
Ellie's story is the story of so many women -- a lifelong love for her mother coupled with a lifelong struggle against her; a comfortableness in the life she lives even as a nagging dissatisfaction persists; a need to protect her college-age daughter while also let her go; a husband who never quite erupts into actual violence but whose subtle abuse causes suffering nonetheless; a downplay of her talents and interests in the arts in favor of more acceptable charity committees and household tasks.
Henry manages to write a novel about all of these things and none of these things, all at once. For Coming Up for Air is not a novel about a particular issue, but about how all of these things culminate in one person's life. She does so with great skill, skill that I can't properly convey without sharing some lines with you:
- Ellie, on the intricacies and intimacies of marriage: "There were swaths of dark land within [my husband] that only I have seen, and I can't explain them to anyone who has viewed only the beautiful landscape. We all have a cavern and an abyss inside" (68).
- Sadie (Ellie's best friend) on the idiocy of love: "Funny how we get confused about what's love and what's freakish control" (70).
- Ellie on her daughter: "Lil -- Lilly Eddington Calvin -- is the most open portion of my heart; she is the most creative piece of my soul" (73).
- Ellie on life-changing choices: "The choices we make when we're broken are sometimes the most awful of all our choices" (142).
- Ellie on want versus love: "There was a difference between not wanting to lose someone and loving someone" (188).
- Ellie on her mother's death: "Sadie and I had just left Mother's grave, where fresh dirt still surrounded the outside rim of the rectangle where she was buried. I couldn't seem to add facts -- she was dead plus she was in a coffin plus she was buried here -- to equal anything I fully understood" (221).
- Ellie on heartbreak: "I saw that heartbreak can come to define your whole life. It can become who you are instead of something that happened to you" (239).
One of the best scenes in the novel is the scene from which the title takes its name. Her first night in Bayside, Ellie is able to witness a Mobile Bay jubilee, in which thousands of fish, shrimp, and crab rush to the water's surface. Residents flock to the shore to rake in the seafood bounty that results. Supposedly only a documented phenomenon in the Mobile Bay and in Tokyo Bay in Japan, Ellie understands the jubilee in a metaphorical sense: "'All they're trying to do is come up for air,' [Ellie] said. 'Poor things, they're in a panic'" (81). In folklore, a jubilee is "an omen of [a] new beginning, of a fresh start. . . . something to do with letting go and with forgiveness, too" (82). Fitting, as Ellie has come in search of exactly that.
Henry also had me looking up jazz singer Melody Gardot on YouTube. Gardot's music factors into the novel in pivotal scenes. Here is Gardot's song, "Love Me Like a River Does," mentioned by name in the book:
In addition to Coming Up for Air, Patti Callahan Henry is the author of seven previous novels. She will be reading from and signing her new novel at various locations around the south through mid-September, including the Decatur Book Festival near Atlanta. You can also find her on the web at her personal blog, on the Southern Authors blog A Good Blog is Hard to Find, on Facebook, and on Twitter.