Editorial Review: Breathe Deep & Swim by Jenna Marcus
Breathe Deep and Swim by Jenna Marcus is a beautifully crafted young adult novel by an author with a deep passion for her genre and the clear desire to inspire a love for reading in her audience.
Setting the novel against the backdrop of an un-sensationalized COVID-19 outbreak establishes a contemporary time period without the limiting tag of a "pandemic novel". While the virus plays its part as a plot device, it does not define nor constrain the story's central theme of the human need for deep family connection.
The death of Benjamin Thomas is the catalyst for his two teenage sons' urgent decision to travel from Florida to New York in a frantic attempt to locate their mother and avoid the terror of separation by an uncaring foster placement.
The epic quest is voiced by the younger son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Thomas, aged fourteen and a passionate reader rather than the musician after whom his quixotic mother so named him. His life is submerged between the covers of classic novels rather than the typical friendship pool of a teenage boy.
Wolfgang’s emotional world is obsessively centered on his artistic sixteen-year-old brother who bears the perverse but more apt name of Van Gogh Vincent Thomas. Van Gogh has done more to raise Wolf since their mother abandoned the family ten years earlier than their father, who turned to alcohol and bitter regret when he lost his wife.
Neither son grieves for the loss of their uncaring and emotionally void father who could not or would not understand children who were intellectually and artistically alien to a narrow-minded, blue-collar bigoted man. Van Gogh is determined to protect his younger brother. Wolfgang trusts his brother’s wild plan to steal their father’s car and drive over a thousand miles (without a license or adult care) to New York where surely a mother who they barely remember will take them in and care for them.
Without a traditional family life, Wolfgang and Van Gogh are further isolated by their unusual focus on literature and art. The sense of otherness creates a brotherly bond that is strong enough to survive all obstacles in their trouble-strewn path to New York and the discovery of the truth about their mother’s abandonment.
Marcus permits the power of her storytelling to enable the highly articulate fourteen-year-old voice to convey complex descriptions and intellectual concepts. Wolfgang is both wise beyond his years and emotionally juvenile due to his strange upbringing. He is equally accepting of his otherness and desperate for the comfort and safety of a traditional family.
Breathe Deep and Swim celebrates difference and rejoices in the power of a deep and abiding bond. Marcus demonstrates that home is not a location but a state of being with the people we love and in whom we trust to care for us, knowing that we will care for them when our strength is greater.
Her story evokes the hope that is core to the desperate state of battling through the difficult years between childhood and adult freedoms suggesting anything is possible for those who have the determination to attempt the impossible, one step at a time.
Turning the pages of this gripping novel makes it a fast, first-time read. But Breathe Deep and Swim is the type of book that demands a slower read to consider the multi-faceted implications of surviving abandonment, isolation, and otherness and the power of love for family.