Emma lives with her Aunt Carol and Uncle George and their two children, Leyla and Jack in Weslyn, Connecticut. She was dropped off at their home four years ago by her alcoholic mother who no longer wanted her. But life with her relatives is a brutal existence, with Emma suffering both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her deranged aunt, while her uncle does little to protect her. The only thing that keeps Emma from reporting the abuse is that it will destroy the family for her two sweet cousins. Instead she intends to suffer through it seeking solace in the knowledge that in two years time she will be free of them when she attends college. And with that goal in mind, Emma works hard to maintain a perfect GPA as well as being an outstanding soccer athlete.
Emma's strategy for high school is to fly under the radar. She keeps to herself and doesn't really have any friends except for the most popular girl in Weslyn High, Sara McKinley. And that works for the most part until one day in class she has an encounter with Evan Mathews, who it turns out, has noticed her. In fact, Evan has noticed Emma far more than she's realized.
Gradually Evan manages, with the help of Sara, to draw Emma into a friendship. Emma is reluctant to open herself to Evan for several reasons. Emma's main focus in her life is that of gaining admission to a good college and escaping from her abusive aunt and uncle. But her second reason is her fear of having to share her secret of abuse with Evan. So they manage to meet at the library and Sara often sets up sleepovers that morph into time out with her and her boyfriend Jason, and Evan and Emma. It's interesting to see how Emma runs her life similarly to how Carol controls her. Just as Carol sets numerous rules for Emma in her home, about what she can eat, her chores and bedtime, Emma also has rules for Evan. The rules revolve around what they can talk about and their behaviour with each other.
With Evan, Emma finally finds a measure of happiness and hope. Evan introduces Emma to different experiences, taking her rock climbing and dirt biking. But when Evan begins to come to an understanding of what is going on in Emma's life, she pushes him away, even though she recognizes that she loves Emma and that he feels the same way about her.
The abuse seems to diminish after a particularly horrible attack that results in Emma being hospitalized. After this attack, arrangements are made for Emma to spend the weekends at Sara's home. Despite this Emma's life is slowly unraveling because Evan has left to return to his family in San Francisco, while Emma dates another guy, Drew, only to discover some unsavory aspects about him.
But just when Drew and Emma break up, Evan reappears in Emma's life. Will they be able to pick up where things left off? And can Emma manage to survive much longer living with her brutal aunt?
Reason To Breathe is a 450 page-turner that keeps the reader captivated until the stunning ending. There are basically two storylines interwoven that will grab readers; the blossoming romance between Evan and Emma that gives her a "reason to breathe" and the gradual, brutal escalation of abuse by Carol that threatens to destroy Emma. This novel is well written and well paced, with lots of engaging interaction between the characters to space out the sequences of abuse, giving the reader time to absorb what is happening. Many readers may not fancy Donovan's ending, but it is a fitting conclusion to a good novel.
The only major contention I have with this novel revolves around the actions of adult characters peripheral to the story and how they dealt with the suspected abuse. This is best exemplified by the situation where Emma is hospitalized after an attack by Carol. She is brutally attacked by her aunt who injures Emma's back. Emma manages to play in her basketball game despite being in a great deal of pain. But during the game, while scoring a final game-winning point, she falls and hits her head resulting in her hospitalization. However, when the attending physician sees Emma's many bruises, he confronts her privately, asking what has happened and how she got her injuries. He tells her that her bruising and a healing contusion are not consistent with her explanations. Despite his reservations, unbelievably Emma is released from hospital back into her aunt and uncle's care. Credibility is further stretched when she shows up at the hospital with an even more serious injury months later and also when her teachers stage an intervention and they also do not report their suspicions to authorities. Emma was failed by those adults who came into contact with her and were in a position to help her.
In Connecticut, like other jurisdictions, anyone who works in a profession in which they have contact with children is mandated by law to report suspected abuse. This is pretty much standard protocol in both the United States and Canada. To fail to do so, is negligence, as a young person's life might very well be at stake. Having many characters suspect something was going on with Emma and not report, was a bit of dramatic license that allowed Donovan to push the story to its searing climax and to make a point about abuse.
Donovan has an interesting cast of characters in her novel, although the main protagonist. Emma Thomas seems a bit too perfect. Despite suffering from both physical and emotional abuse, Emma manages to maintain a 4.0 GPA, is an all-star athlete who is being courted by major Ivy League colleges, editor of the school newspaper AND a talented artist. Despite her overachieving tendencies, Donovan has created a character who is likeable and strong. Emma is a character who elicits strong emotions from the reader; we want to protect and save her.
Emma's strategy for dealing with her abuse is to be in the background, in the shadows both at school and at home. Despite her best efforts to be a shadow, there is one person who won't allow her to do this.
"That's what was bothering me so much about Evan Mathews. He knew I existed. He was determined to pull me out from the shadows, and I couldn't get away from him. He wasn't deterred by my one-word answers or abrupt responses. He wasn't supposed to be paying attention to me, and I was trying, without success, to ignore him. But he was getting to me, and I think he knew it..."Through out the story, Emma continually refuses to report her Aunt Carol's abuse, despite her friend Sara's many protestations. Her reasoning is that she will destroy the lives of her young cousins whom she loves dearly. It is clear Emma is deeply in denial, believing she is strong enough to cope with the abuse. However, as Donovan demonstrates, like most abuse situations, the person being affected often cannot see the reality of their situation. Abuse has a way of distorting perception. In Emma's case, she doesn't seem to realize just how bad the abuse has become and she believes that the consequences of reporting her abuser will outweigh the actual abuse. She doesn't recognize that no matter how hard she tries to fly under Carol's radar, she's unable to protect herself. It is finally Evan who makes her realize this, too late.
Sara McKinley is her faithful, stalwart friend who enables Emma again and again, putting her back together after abusive episodes, dressing and re-making her, but refusing to do what is right and tell her parents or teachers because of a misguided idea of friendship. Sara is the one person who saw Emma's injuries, yet still did not report her abuse likely because she couldn't get past her fear. It's a pretty big situation for a 16 year old to have to deal with. Sara also encourages Emma to develop a relationship with Evan and to try to find happiness within the boundaries that she's set for herself.She also works with Emma to try to get her away from her aunt's home as much as possible.
Evan is a wonderful character who brings much hope to this dark novel. He respects and loves Emma, and is willing to forge a relationship on her terms. It is his love for her that gives Emma the strength to carry on. Eventually he does come to know what is happening to Emma and he is finally able to gain her trust to the point that she has the courage to act.
Reason To Breathe is a novel for older teens 16+ with its dark theme of cruel physical and emotional abuse and the situations of teen hook-ups, parties and pregnancy. There's plenty of drama, a blossoming romance and a gut-wrenching cliff-hanger of an ending.
The second and third books in this series, Barely Breathing and Out of Breath are already published. I will be reviewing both when we receive our copies.
The message is clear though: if you are abused, tell a best friend, a teacher, a minister or priest, a police officer, or a coach and ask for help. Once you tell, you will be helped and protected. If you are the friend of a person you suspect is being abused, support your friend and tell an adult. You can also call the number below anonymously and confidentally (this means they will not ask your name).
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-422-4453. This number is good in both the United States and Canada.
Reason To Breathe by Rebecca Donovan
Las Vegas: Amazon Children's Publishing 2013