Breathless (2020) – Jennifer Niven

Title:Breathless
Author:Jennifer Niven
Publisher:Penguin Random House
Date of publication:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Penguin Random House kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Claudine ‘Claude’ Henry is about to graduate from high school. She has a bright future ahead of her, which will begin with going to college, and will hopefully end with her becoming the writer she feels destined to be, even though her creative writing teacher Mr. Russo told Claude that:

“If you really want to write and I believe you do, you’re going to have to put it all out there so that we can feel what you feel. You always seem to be holding back…”

Before her life changes Claude and her best friend Saz plan to go on an epic road trip to explore the entire state of Ohio before they both have to leave for separate colleges. Other than being obsessed with losing her virginity, and having a massive crush on school athlete Wyatt Jones, Claude also has two parents who are about to drop a major bombshell on her life and her plans.

Less than a week before graduation, Claude’s dad tells her that he’s leaving. When Claude hears her dad, the ultra-cool Neil who owns vintage Nirvana T-shirts, and once dreamed of being a rock-star, explain to her that he wants a different life for himself, she interprets that as him not loving her anymore, as him wanting nothing more to do with her. Not long after that her mother Lauren, the other writer in the family, tells Claude the two of them will be spending the summer on a remote Georgian island. Her mother plans to do some research for a book, and take a break from the inevitability of her crumbling marriage.

Claude is furious. Her plans with Saz are ruined, and soon the three of them (they take the family cat with them) are on a ferry to an island that has no WiFi or cell reception, which means it will now be near impossible for Claude to communicate with her best friend. They move to a house close to the beach that belongs to her mom’s dearest friend, and soon enough Claude’s mother has buried herself in research for her new book. This very same island that Claude feels she’s been banished to also happens to have been the site of a lot of her own family history. Claudine Blackwood, whom Claude is named after, lived on the island in the Rosecroft estate that is now just a ruin after a fire burned the place to the ground.

Though her family has a tragic history on the island, and everyone seems to know exactly who the Blackwoods are, or were, Claude is convinced she will spend all of her time alone, reading and lying on the deserted beach, until its time to return to her normal life. Of course, this doesn’t happen – because Jeremiah Crew happens, and everything Claude thought she knew about everything vanishes in the few seconds it takes to meet the mysterious boy who will make her fall over herself, fall in love and become the version of herself she always wanted to be.

“…I’m looking into his eyes, and thinking how amazing it is that you can live for eighteen years without knowing someone, and then they can come along and, like that, know you better than anyone. And you can’t imagine what you ever did before they knew you and saw you and heard you and talked to you about all the things they’ve been through and all the things that matter to them.”

Jeremiah Crew floats into Claude’s orbit and teaches her to ride a bike, takes her for long walks on the beach at night, and though he begs her not to, she falls deeply in love with him. Claude falls in love with someone who has a lot of secrets, and no intention of sticking around. Yet still, she falls, and in the midst of that falling, she becomes acquainted with her new writing voice and begins to see more than just her own Claude sphere. She begins to really see her parents for what they are, and for what they once were – two kids who were in love and just aren’t anymore.

Jennifer Niven has an incredible ability to delve deeply into teenage issues – when everything seems too much in a world that you’re still desperately trying to understand. Breathless deals with the casual pain of falling in love, and the heartache of one’s first real heartbreak. The novel deals with divorce and death, and suicide and teenage sexuality with the grace that Niven is so perfect at. It is a ‘coming-of-age’ story about falling in love with other people and falling in love with yourself.

“This moment is enough. Right now is enough. We don’t need to be anything more than now.”

Breathless is Nivens’ third novel for young adults, and though it fails to be as heart-wrenching and achingly beautiful as her previous novels, All The Bright Places and Holding Up The Universe this stunning contemporary romance is still an engaging triumph of the human condition and the pain of being hopelessly in love.

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