After reading Julie Orringer's debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, I was very curious to read her first book, a collection of short stories. The Invisible Bridge is such a sprawling and massive novel that a short story collection seemed incongruous.
As it turns out, I had read one of her stories before ("The Smoothest Way is Paved With Stones"). Orringer's talent is certainly apparent in How To Breathe Underwater, if in a rather more nascent form, although her approach to short stories rather differs from what I prefer.
Orringer's short stories read like chunks of larger works, or pieces she toyed with before abandoning - and that's not a bad thing, although I like the hard, gem-like stories of TC Boyle, where each story stands on its own little legs. It's also rewarding to see that she braved new territory with Invisible Bridge. How to Breathe Underwater, while well-written, tromps familiar territory with its stories of teenage girls, teenage bullied girls, teenage bullied Jewish girls, teenage bullied mourning girls, and teenage bullied mourning Jewish coming-to-terms-with-their-contradictory-feelings girls.
Cancer is also featured heavily in this collection, with two vignettes about families facing the imminent loss of their mother in "Pilgrims" and "What We Save." "Note to Sixth-Grade Self" reads like Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl."
Orringer's collection makes it clear that she's a talent to watch, but the stories feel almost tentative, as though she used the collection to test out various voices, and the subject matter is nearly circular in its similarity. Still, the The Invisible Bridge lived up to the promise that How to Breathe Underwater made.