NEED TO BREATHE by Tara Staley

SEP 26, 2012

Amazon Digital Services, Inc. (Sept 20, 2012)
367 pages


Forsyth Memorial Hospital. Groundhog Day, 1975

      The first time I see Miss Claire Marie, she’s thirteen inches long and weighs seven-hundred grams. Her eyes have barely gelled and opened, and her spindly arms look like the bones in a bat’s wings. Veins wiggle their way across her forehead and see-through skin. She has youth so bad it hurts, full of loosely-stitched tissues and organs. Lord-help, there’s something about the way Claire lays fighting in that bubble-shaped incubator that could make a heart do handsprings.

      Doctors move her to an isolated room and slip on gowns and gloves. They turn and look for Daddy Mick Harper. To tell him that, “well, they rarely make it at twenty-six weeks, we just want you to be aware. You want us to try saving her?”


So begins the story in Need to Breathe, the riveting, rollicking adventure of keeping young Claire Harper alive, a job given to narrator and “spirit foster parent” Millie Rose. Millie, who died giving birth in 1922, has been dispatched from the afterlife to help out. Claire, a preemie born a whopping fourteen weeks early, fighting for every breath, desperately needs that help.

This is not your average “angel sent down to watch over a struggling mortal” story. In Millie, author Tara Staley has given us a frank, pragmatic narrator, the most down-to-earth guiding spirit you could imagine. (The term “angel” rarely gets used, and Millie isn’t the angelic type anyway, which makes the story far more interesting.) The story follows the life of Claire, from her harrowing arrival as a barely viable preemie, through her young years, as she is forced to deal with the consequences of her premature birth which include respiratory trauma, a host of other ailments, including scars from burn marks mysteriously on her skin at birth. To boot, there are her dysfunctional parents, still clueless, misguided kids themselves at the time of Claire’s birth, stumbling to find their own way in the world.

It’s a survivor’s story, albeit an unconventional one, given that the narrator didn’t survive her own ordeal of bringing life into the world. Millie, still grieving her loss, her inability to have taken any part in her own daughter’s upbringing, seizes this new role as a second chance of sorts, but the role is daunting. She can only silently send the imperiled Claire and her family messages and hope they sink in. The story delivers one domestic drama after another, everyday hazards, and that’s what I like about this story. It isn’t a tightly plotted single adventure so much as the chaos of living day after day, year after year. The scenes, presented in richly detailed vignettes that highlight Staley’s considerable writing skills, are at turns entertaining, chaotic, hilarious, painful—much like life itself.

Millie, even in the afterlife, does not live in a perfect world. She has her own issues, the pain of not being able to see and touch her daughter, the longing of it, exacerbated by the influence of Liam, not quite The Devil so much as one of Hell’s denizens, if you will. He pops in and out, seducing Millie with whispers of “I’ve seen Mae” (the daughter Millie died giving birth to) and “I can take you to see Mae.” Liam is deliciously portrayed—clearly untrustworthy but seductive and oh-so-tempting to listen to, give in to.

While all the main characters are vividly depicted, it’s Millie who shines most, with her wry humor, her intelligent observations about life, the nature of duty and love, the timeless hold motherhood casts on a woman. Whether she’s ranting about the hazards abounding in Claire’s life, the unhelpful teachers and classmates, negligent parents, or exploring her own painful feelings about having lost out on raising her child, I loved her. When she ached for that lost child, that experience, I ached for her, with her. Staley’s accomplishment is huge: just as in Alice Seybold did in The Lovely Bones, she has humanized and made a spectral narrator come to life, into a character the reader won’t forget.

Need to Breathe chronicles in an efficient fashion the whole spectrum of the human experience. From a preemie born at 26 weeks, struggling to simply “breathe in, breathe out,” the reader is led through the stages of young life through Claire, fledgling adulthood through her parents, and old age through Claire’s great-aunts. The following passage offers the quirky, homespun wisdom of the close-to-death Great-aunt Gertha, again in Staley’s inimitable prose. (The thoughts are omnisciently observed by Millie; the italicized words are Millie’s own.)

      What can I say, you roam all over creation and hope you’re a great revisionist. You mess up, you start over. You search for, long for, that special place where U-turns and cloverleafs abound, where there’s not a single one-way street, where clocks don’t necessarily move forward. 
      The Union Cross clock has moved tremendously forward, Gertha thinks. It’s full of people who couldn’t tell you the difference between Eastern and Lexington barbecue. Oil slick mirages on every asphalt road, stoplights all over the place. Tires kiss curbs, and people say “ouch” on behalf of their vehicle’s pain. Parking lot sparrows pick at crumbs, and bees dive-bomb for every open window. Union Cross, where the old ways are dying out with Gertha. Nothing ‘gainst the transplants, Gertha thinks, but things just aren’t the same.
      Sometimes she loathes the change and feels at peace about being on her last leg.
      Few things are so loathed—the spouse who wants a ton of children, the cop who pulls at 3-over the speed limit, catalogue pants that don’t fit, shirts that go on sale the day after you buy them. A tree grown up around a power line loathes every storm.
      “T-t-t,” she tells Claire on Mother’s Day. Come here, I say for her. I want to impart some words of wisdom before I go away. Remember the homeplace. It’s yours and Charlie’s. You can get him back by believing in yourself. Hope springs eternal, as they say.
      “What are you talking about, Gertha? Please don’t go away. I’ll be all alone here.”
      She says it’s about “that” time. And you need to know some things. For one, leave the dirt on vegetables so they’ll keep longer. Whole milk, it’s like drinking melted ice cream. Drive safely because it’s not just cars that are recalled by their maker. Eat your bananas green and your tommy-toes on the vine. Pit-cooked is always better. “Boys” rhymes with “noise” for a reason. The future is history that hasn’t happened yet. You lose inches off your height every year after seventy-five. You’re not too old for your wants to hurt you. And tell them all in the family, every one, I said bye. The cracks in our plates go all the way through. Isn’t that a shame?

There is so much in this novel, rich in humanity and philosophy and wisdom. It’s intermingled with humor and stream of consciousness and sound-bytes, chaotic at times, relentlessly chugging forward. Sometimes the abundant “no words wasted” description left me exhausted, needing to come up for air for a spell, but the story is so well crafted that it would stay on my mind, haunting me. I was drawn back, over and over, by the questions that give the story its base. Will Millie get the chance to see the daughter she gave birth to, back in 1922? What is the mystery behind the burn marks Claire was born with? What will Claire’s relationship with her longtime friend Charlie evolve into? What trouble will Claire get into next, particularly during this, her sensual and sexual coming of age (the story covers roughly twenty years). All the while, there’s that devil, Liam, coaxing Millie to abandon her charge and follow him, where he will give her the glimpse of Mae, her own daughter, which she longs for, more than anything, consequences (or her) be damned.

It should be noted that, although the narrator is a guardian angel and the story references God, heaven, life in the afterlife, this isn’t Christian fiction. It has a more secular agenda and comes off as frank, bawdy, laced with sensuality, from both mortals and angels alike. It’s a very human take on both life and the afterlife, and the story is stronger for it. While the plot does contain an angle pertaining to unborn life and freedom of choice, it is never preachy and remains faithful to the story versus the socio-political agenda.

Lyrically rendered, with unforgettablecharacters, Need to Breathe will hold appeal for women’s fiction readers who like their prose on the lively-and-literary side, or anyone seeking an inventive, engrossing, well-crafted story.

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