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“A Mouthful of Air”

A Mouthful of Air, by Amy Koppelman, MacAdam/Cage, $23

There are two sets of fresh scars in Amy Koppleman’s audacious debut novel, A Mouthful of Air. Julie Davis has slit her wrists around the same time as her mother, Harriet, has had a facelift. One of these privileged women is a survivor, the other a perpetual self-doubter.

Julie is a young woman who sleepwalked into the life prescribed for her, Blessed with the physical attractiveness that can shield select women from harm, from too much exposure to the struggles of those who make their own way, she has effortlessly acquired a successful husband—an unfailingly decent, if conventional man—a little boy, a baby girl. Both husband and wife have bought what they’ve, presumably been sold throughout their lives, all the trimmings of their social class. Yet Julie is absent from her own life. Most of her time is spent living as an impostor. Day by day, hour by hour, she remains a witness to her own search for authentic emotion.

The novel opens a few weeks after Julie has slit her wrists, discovered in the bathtub by her housekeeper, her daughter Rachel yet to be born. We come to know Julie during the mending process from this suicide attempt.

Koppleman tells Julie’s story in a spare, staccato prose, a rhythm that seems to keep pace with her heroine’s methodical efforts to achieve wholeness. Koppleman gestures to possible causes for Julie’s profound depression, but she understands the etiology of this illness does not reside in circumstance. She tells an ultimately harrowing story, but guides it with restraint and honesty, and no small amount of courage.

Patty Grossman is the author of three novels; the most recent is Unexpected Child (Alyson Books, 2000).