2005 fiction finalist

Julie Orringer | How to Breathe Underwater

Photo of authorAbout the author

Julie Orringer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She lives in San Francisco.

About the book
Nine fiercely beautiful, impossible-to-put-down stories from a young writer who has already received immediate worldwide attention. Julie Orringer’s characters–all of them submerged by loss, whether of parents or lovers or a viable relationship to the world in general–struggle mightily against the wildly engulfing forces that threaten to overtake us all. All of them learn, gloriously if at great cost, how to breathe underwater. 

In “Pilgrims,” a band of motherless children torment each other on Thanksgiving day. In “The Isabel Fish,” the sole survivor of a drowning accident takes up scuba diving. In “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” a young woman confronts the inscrutable power of her cousin’s beauty (“Aïda. That is her terrible name. Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity”). In “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones,” the failure of religious and moral codes–to protect, to comfort, to offer solace–is seen through the eyes of a group of Orthodox Jewish adolescents discovering the irresistible power of their burgeoning sexuality. 

In story after story, Orringer captures moments when the dark contours of the adult world come sharply into focus: Here are young people abandoned to their own devices, thrust too soon into predicaments of insoluble difficulty, and left to fend for themselves against the wide variety of human trouble. Buoyed by the exquisite tenderness of remembered love, they learn to take up residence in this strange new territory, if not to transcend it, and to fashion from their grief new selves, new lives. Orringer’s debut collection blazes with emotion, with human appetite, with fortitude, with despair; these nine uncommonly wise and assured stories introduce an astonishing new talent.

Critics / Reviews

"A major new talent. . . . How to Breathe Underwater is a dark and beautiful book."  — The New York Times Book Review

"These stories are without exception clear-eyed, compassionate and deeply moving. . . . Even her most bitter characters have a gift, the sharp wit of envy. This, Orringer's first book, is breathtakingly good, truly felt and beautifully delivered."  — The Guardian

"Orringer's engaging wit, her eye for social detail, her ear for patterns of speech and thought, and her insights into human nature proclaim her a writer to be reckoned with."  — Los Angeles Times

"Captivating. . . . Orringer limns the ordinary, terrifying time between childhood and maturity so skillfully."  — San Francisco Chronicle

"Pure gems, rollicking along with scintillating prose and surety. Just when you think they will stop --- and lesser writers would stop --- they keep going with inexorable momentum."  — Ploughshares

"The harsh landscape in which Orringer's characters dwell corresponds to the fierce beauty of her writing. Even the grimmest of these stories conveys, along with anguish, a child's spark of mystery and wonder."  — The New York Times

"Beautiful, so wise and vital. . . . It's impossible not to feel for the pained and alienated young women in Orringer's stories, and impossible not to be stunned and moved by their quests for redemption. More so than any debut author in recent years, Orringer proves that the kids are all right, even when they're not."  — The Austin Chronicle

"Utterly authentic . . . the passage through childhood and puberty is strewn with dangers and roadblocks. But what [Orringer] does with those hazards in her stories is something altogether magical."  — The Seattle Times

"Eloquent. . . . Orringer sifts the inexorable sparks of sexual awakening and unearths moments of brittle surprise and bitter triumph. . . . Haunting."  — Miami Herald

"Unclouded by sentimentality . . . Orringer endows her situations and her characters --- adults as well as children --- with complexity and humor. . . . She writes with penetrating intelligence and remarkable self-possession."  — The Boston Globe