The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, by Erin Bartels
Publication: Revell; January 4, 2022
About: The best fiction simply tells the truth.
But the truth is never simple.
When novelist Kendra Brennan moves into her grandfather’s old cabin on Hidden Lake, she has a problem and a plan. The problem? An inflammatory letter from A Very Disappointed Reader. The plan? To confront Tyler, her childhood best friend’s brother–and the man who inspired the antagonist in her first book. If she can prove that she told the truth about what happened during those long-ago summers, perhaps she can put the letter’s claims to rest and meet the swiftly approaching deadline for her next book.
But what she discovers as she delves into the murky past is not what she expected. While facing Tyler isn’t easy, facing the consequences of her failed friendship with his sister, Cami, may be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.
Plumb the depths of the human heart with this emotional exploration of how a friendship dies, how we can face the unforgivable, and how even those who have been hurt can learn to love with abandon.
A while back I was scrolling through available books on NetGalley and immediately stopped when I saw The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. How beautiful is this cover? Erin Bartels is a new-to-me author and after reading the blurb I decided to give this one a try. However, now I am struggling to review and rate this one because of my own fault of reading another review of it that was posted on Goodreads. Let me explain…
Kendra returns to her small cottage on a lake in Michigan after inheriting it from her grandfather and to help deal with a serious case of writer’s block. Kendra is only months away from the deadline for her second book – one that she has not yet started – and is constantly stressing over an anonymous letter from “A Very Disappointed Reader” in regards to her first book. So after 8 years she finally returns to Hidden Lake to hopefully find inspiration, answers about who wrote the letter, and perspective on her memory of events that happened there during her childhood.
I must admit that the only reason that I didn’t give up on this by the 20-30% mark is Bartels’ exquisite imagery and descriptions of Kendra’s grandfather’s cabin. Told from Kendra’s POV speaking to her childhood best friend Cami, it almost reads like a letter. She paints such a beautiful picture of innocent times swimming, collecting rocks, and even being bitten by mosquitos that I was instantly transported to my own childhood summers spent out in the country with my grandparents and could vividly recall my own experiences with the heat, rain, bugs, and so on. Otherwise, I was finding this story tedious. But then, additional characters are slowly introduced. There is Robert, the famous author across the lake and father of Cami and Cami’s older brother Tyler. There is Beth, Robert’s wife and mother to Cami and Tyler. There’s a crazy old man named Ike that lives on the lake and has been around forever. Finally, there is Andreas, the German translator that shows up and surprises Kendra eager to get to work finishing the German translation of her first book.
As soon as Tyler appears in the novel, the reader quickly realizes that something happened between them all of those summers ago and it takes a lot of recollection and discussion to clarify if what happened between them was wanted or unwanted on Kendra’s part. Moreover, Kendra’s recurring internal conflict about whether she liked Tyler’s attention or not comes up again and again making the reader wonder about Tyler’s intentions. Kendra clearly says she allowed it to go on for several summers, so was it sexual abuse or shame? All of these questions are answered while there are many other revelations about Kendra’s family, Cami and Tyler’s lives, Robert and Beth’s past, and even admissions from Kendra’s own mother, Jackie.
At the end of the novel, I felt happy about the direction of Kendra’s life. I felt that I understood all of the characters including their motivations and shortcomings. Despite the difficult subject matter and themes in this novel, I also felt that I had read something beautiful and raw and emotional that took horrific events and turned them into an amazing story.
But then I read a review that spun this story in a different direction and confused the hell out of me! It is very rare that I read other reviews of a book after I have read it and before I write my own, obviously so my own opinions are not influenced in any way. I have no idea why I did it today but I reacted so loudly (yelling at my computer screen) that my husband rushed into the room to see what was wrong with me. If this reader’s interpretation is correct, then I got everything very wrong.
In the end, I am of course reviewing this based on what I read and what I felt. This is not a fast-paced novel and isn’t full of any steamy, romantic love scenes. But the vivid imagery and retelling of a childhood lost is one that I could not put down. I feel like I have now been to this imaginary place and that I know each of the characters as if they were my own friends and family.
*Thanks to Revell and NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest review!