A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates

New York: Ecco, 2021
364 Pages


Amid a starkly beautiful but uncanny landscape in New Mexico, a married couple from Cambridge, Massachusetts takes residency at a distinguished academic institute. When the husband is stricken with a mysterious illness and at first misdiagnosed, their lives are uprooted, and husband and wife each embarks upon a nightmare journey.  At thirty-seven, Michaela faces the terrifying prospect of widowhood—and the loss of Gerard, whose identity has greatly shaped her own.

In vividly depicted scenes of escalating suspense, Michaela cares desperately for Gerard in his final days as she comes to realize that her love for her husband, however fierce and selfless, is not enough to save him, and that his death is beyond her comprehension.  A love that refuses to be surrendered at death—is this the blessing of a unique married love, or a curse that must be exorcized?

Part intimately detailed love story, part horror story embedded in real life, Breathe is an exploration of haunting rooted in the domesticity of marital love, along with a determination to be faithful to the beloved and to survive the trauma of loss.


The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

How very hard, to enter an empty house.

table of contentsContents

Part I: The Vigil

1. A Voice Out of a Fever Cloud
2. The Vigil
3. Post-Mortem
4. Time-Out-of-Time
5. Unthinkable
6. A Rare Parasite
7. The Man Who Never Dreams
8. Respite
9. Wait
10. Spinoza
11. Bed of Serpents
12. The Vigil II
13. Urgent Care
14. Respite II
15. Secret Cache
16. A Theory Pre-Post-Mortem
17. Lonely Wife
18. “Please Let Us Help You”
19. The Vigil III
20. The Experiment
21. Orpheus, Eurydice
22. The Vigil: Night
23. Prosopagnosia
24. Hospice/Honeymoon
25. The Unbearable
26. Canceled
27. “Good News”
28. Breathe
29. Death Certificate

Part II: Post-Mortem

30. The Wound
31. Post-Mortem
32. “Widow”
33. Skli
34. Grief-Vise
35. Chapel of Chimes
36. The Instructions
37. Hylpe Mi Plz Hylppe Mie
38. Voice Mail Message!
39. “No One Can Reach Him”
40. Missing
41. Seven Pounds, Two Ounces
42. Café Luz de la Luna
43. Clinic
44. Grief Counselor
45. Demon-Goddess
46. Blindsight
47. Dawn
48. The Good Widow
49. “Save Yourself”
50. The Examination
51. “Take Me Home”
52. The Lonely
53. Revelation in the Form of a Dove
54. “Thank You for Changing My Life”
55. Half-Life
56. The Adulteress
57. The Approach
58. Bell Tower at San Gabriel
59. Rio de Piedras
60. The Departure
61. A Voice Out of a Fever Cloud



Gerard’s heavily annotated paperback copy of Spinoza: Ethics you have brought to his hospital room at his request. As Gerard has wittily observed, he is working against a deadline.

This remark you hear, you smile to hear, you do not wince to hear, as Gerard has alluded to a deadline several times since being hospitalized.

In fact, the copyedited/revised manuscript of The Human Brain and Its Discontents is due back at the Harvard University Press within the month.

Gerard has been working intermittently on it for weeks but has been slowed down considerably by “these circumstances” as he calls the inconvenience of being hospitalized.

It is essential for Gerard to check quotations from the Ethics against quotations scattered through The Human Brain and Its Discontents. For this he has enlisted your help going through the hefty manuscript searching for yellow Post-its that reference Spinoza.

Try to listen to Gerard speak of Spinoza in some slantwise relationship to cognitive neuroscience but you are distracted this morning, you absorb little of what he says. It is the voice, or nearly the voice, of Gerard McManus’s public persona, that dazzles audiences with such startling and original insights but all that you will remember afterward is a skein of nonsense syllables that mean absolutely nothing to you.

“Every (physical) substance is necessarily infinite. Every (non)physical substance is necessarily finite.”

Your head fills with static. Infinite, finite!

All that is crucial is the next lab report. What is the patient’s white blood cell count, what is the patient’s degree of oxygen intake, what is the patient’s creatinine reading.

What is the “progress” of the tumors.

The first time you’d heard Gerard speak in public he’d told an onstage interviewer that reading Spinoza’s Ethics at the age of eighteen, a university freshman, changed his life forever: “Every molecule of my being.”

As later, reading Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein would further alter his life: “Made me the person I am today.”

A boastful sort of humility, it had seemed. Yet sincere.

Yet now you want to protest, angrily—No. That is not true. Your parents who loved you made you what you are. Those who were tender with you when you were vulnerable, and protected you, and hid from you that they protected you, and those who love you now, and are protecting you now—these have made you what you are. Not men you never knew, who never knew you. And not books.

Book Covers

reviews, starts, 5Reviews

Jana Siciliano, Bookreporter, September 17, 2021
5 stars
…BREATHE, is a masterwork of grief fiction…. Even with heartache at the center of this story, BREATHE is a beautiful read, a flowing, steadfast journey that will call upon your empathy and compassion in a way that is profoundly real and really profound.

Publishers Weekly, June 28, 2021
4 stars
Shards of nightmarish grief coalesce in Oates’s powerful latest (after The (Other) You), a fever dream unleashed when a woman fails to come to terms with the death of her husband…. Fecund with fear and anguish, and driven by raw, breathless narration, this hallucinatory tale will not disappoint.

Eric Karl Anderson, Lonesome Reader, July 28, 2021
4 stars
This novel describes the journey of a woman confronted with the insurmountable reality of death and the solemn fact that we will eventually lose those we love. Unable to face the fact of Gerard’s death, she becomes lost in a fever dream where time is looped and she’s plagued by wrathful gods eager to consume her. It’s a tense, sobering and artfully-composed tale full of insight and tender feeling.

Joshua Henkin, New York Times Book Review, September 5, 2021
4 stars
Breathe” is a fever dream of a novel, and it’s as an allegory of grief that it most sparkles. What appears to be hallucination is actually more emotionally complicated. “Your husband has not died, it is you who have died. … Without Gerard she is beginning to lose Michaela.” “Breathe” is also a moving meditation on grief time, where there is no beginning, no end, and “each hour, each day, passes with excruciating slowness yet it is all happening very quickly.” And true to O’Connor’s dictum, Oates lands the book’s wonderful ending. The bottom of the hill, it turns out, can be both surprising and inevitable.

Lindsay Harmon, Booklist, July 1, 2021
3 stars
Breathe will appeal to fans of intensely interiorized literary fiction, psychological suspense like Chris Bohjalian’s The Flight Attendant, and searing explorations of grief and loss like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Library Journal, July 23, 2021
3 stars
Oates has dedicated the novel to her late husband, Charlie Gross, who passed away in 2019. While the characters here are decades younger than Oates and Gross, one can speculate that she drew upon her own grief in crafting this novel, which is gut-wrenching and devoid of sentimentality. Oates doesn’t pander to the reader and leaves Michaela’s duality open to interpretation.

Anita Snow, The Associated Press, August 10, 2021
3 stars
Breathe” is the highly affecting story of a woman facing the unimaginable loss of her spouse.

Mark Athitakis, Washington Post, August 23, 2021
3 stars
As a portrait of the wobbly unreality of existence that comes with a loved one’s death, “Breathe” can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to resolve the story while preserving Michaela’s boiled-brain irrationality. She isn’t afraid to delve into overstatement to make the point that losing someone we love carves out a piece of us. But that also means Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the novel’s latter stages. No rationality can reach her…. In its best moments, “Breathe” shows how that makes a kind of sense; so many relationships are made of the stories we tell each other. But it’s also a novel that falls in love with its portrait of paranoia – and that’s not a healthy relationship for anybody.

Shannon Carriger, Seattle Book Review
3 stars
For fans of Oates, there’s a value in reading the novel. And, I imagine, those interested in grief could find a compelling character study in Breathe. It isn’t for everyone, though, largely because the chaos and mess of Michaela’s life, in the wake of the last two years in America, may simply be too much to bear.

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot: “Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld,” 1861

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