BREATHING ROOM by Patricia Elam


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Ostensibly about the ups and downs in a long friendship, this debut from NPR commentator and O. Henry–winner Elam explores how issues of race influence her politically aware and upwardly mobile African-American cast.

Norma is a photographer married to a lawyer. After her second child is stillborn, her husband withdraws into his career while Norma drifts into an affair. At the same time, she finds it increasingly difficult to connect emotionally with her three-year-old son. Her best friend Moxie, a divorced probation officer, is outraged that Norma would betray her husband; and the fact that Norma’s lover is white makes the offense downright unforgivable. But Moxie is about to face her own crisis. Her 15-year-old daughter Zadi, whose two ambitions are (1) to lose her virginity and (2) to become a world-famous ballerina, is secretly involved with one of Moxie’s clients, a young would-be rapper whose life of drug dealing and violent risks has little in common with Zadi’s routine at private school and ballet class. While Elam admirably avoids romanticizing either woman’s dilemma, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Norma, whose husband and lover are both good men and whose child is starving for her affection. If Norma is self-centered and spoiled, though, Moxie has the more abrasive personality. Still, self-righteous and rigid, she nevertheless has a neediness and defensiveness so transparent that even her daughter sees through her. But it’s Zadi who steals the reader’s heart. In her diary entries, she comes across as smart and silly, wise and immature, charming and spoiled—in other words, everybody’s daughter. Elam’s mistake lies in forcing the narrative of Norma and Moxie’s friendship to the forefront, particularly in the disappointingly pat ending. Their separate stories, and Zadi’s, are far more gripping.

The reality of contemporary middle-class African-American life, even so, scrutinized with a certain insight and sometimes painful honesty.

Pub Date: Jan. 9th, 2001
ISBN: 0-671-02842-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Pocket
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2000