Review: Love and loss in ‘Breathe’ by Joyce Carol Oates

“Breathe,” by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco)

Joyce Carol Oates’ novel is a story of love, loss and loneliness that opens with a wife urging, willing, begging her dying husband to breathe.

“Nothing matters except: he must not die,” the novel begins. “He must breathe. He must not stop breathing.”

Written after Oates’ husband, Charlie Gross, died in 2019 and dedicated to him, “Breathe” is the highly affecting story of a woman facing the unimaginable loss of her spouse.

Michaela McManus, the younger second wife of distinguished Harvard science historian Gerard McManus, has relocated with him from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Santa Tierra, New Mexico, where he has an eight-month residency at the Institute for Advanced Research.

The couple’s temporary home state is strange and beautiful with its “battalions of sculpted clouds” and “dark-bruised El Greco skies that drew the eye helplessly upward.” The surreal quality of the place becomes a mirror of the uncharted path they are thrust upon when Gerard develops a cough and falls ill with a mysterious disease.

Within weeks after the couple’s arrival in New Mexico, Gerard is hospitalized at the Santa Tierra Cancer Center.

“In room 771,” Michaela reflects, “it is wonderful to see how oxygen seeps silently into the husband’s nostrils through a translucent plastic tube. Wonderful to see the husband is alive and breathing. “

But Gerard’s condition deteriorates quickly and soon he is in hospice.

After her husband dies, the story of marital love morphs into a tale of horror as Michaela is thrust into a hallucinatory world, squeezed by what she calls the “grief-vise.”

Michaela imagines receiving a voice mail on her cell phone that says Gerard did not die, it was all a mistake. She also believes she sees Gerard in the parking lot outside the office building where she is visiting a grief counselor.

Michaela becomes increasingly troubled by sculptures of indigenous demon-gods in the home the institute loaned them. And a persistent voice, presumably Gerard’s, continually calls her to join him.

As the book nears the end, time begins tumbling forward in a chaotic manner. It’s hard to know what is real and what is imagined as the novel rushes toward its shocking and ambiguous ending.

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