My rating: 4/10.
I had to look back and see how I rated the previous three Betty Cavanna vintage teen novels I reviewed, and I see I gave a 6 to the strongest one, Jenny Kimura, and a 5 to both The Country Cousin and Lasso Your Heart. A Breath of Fresh Air is definitely down a level from these already minor novels, both in plot and execution.
Despite the low rating, this book is already back on the keeper shelf, as it is a decent enough story for a quiet hour or two’s modest diversion.
Seventeen-year-old Brooke Lawrence and her thirteen-year-old brother Peter are reeling from their parents’ announcement that they are getting a divorce. In the staid middle-class circle the family inhabits in quiet Concord, Massachusetts, divorce is still a matter of whispers and concerned glances. Both Brooke and Peter feel horribly stigmatized by their situation, even though everyone (except the two young Lawrences) agrees that they could see the split coming.
Competent Harriet will be better off not saddled with her dreamy and ineffectual husband, Austin, and he in turn will be happier living with (and being supported by) his older sister, who truly appreciates his penchant for tinkering with hopelessly complicated inventions which never quite make it through the patent office to production. For some years now Harriet has taken on the role of family breadwinner with her antique store business, and Austin’s cleaning out of their joint bank account just as she’s written a (bounced) cheque for a stock order is the final straw in a long series of like episodes.
Brooke, “smart and very pretty”, is a scholarship student in her final year of high school at an exclusive girls’ school, and her pride is bruised and her confidence shaken by the failure of her parents’ marriage. She is questioning everything that she once took for granted, including her own budding romantic relationship with the quiet and loyal David Hale.
Brooke’s research project on author Louisa May Alcott, the local historical celebrity, brings the parallels in Brooke’s and Louisa’s lives into focus, and is the sub-theme of A Breath of Fresh Air. Impractical father, driven mother, and a strong desire for self-expression through writing are common grounds, and as Brooke muses over Louisa May Alcott’s teenage decision to eschew romance and marriage, she wonders if she should do the same. David, naturally enough, does not agree, nor does a charismatic Harvard student who pops up out of nowhere to actively pursue the delectable Brooke, and to add a bit of romantic tension to this rather dull story.
The details regarding the antique buying and selling business are the most interesting aspects of this novel, and the related humour relieves the earnest tone; I had to chuckle over Harriet’s classification of some of her casual browsers as “bathroom customers”. The main characters are (aside from Harriet, whom I quite related to) decidedly flat; I never got a sense of any of them being real people; they fulfilled every stereotype of their imposed roles. The plot is predictable and completely unsurprising; Brooke’s final decision regarding her own romantic life is absolutely no epiphany to anyone, including the patient and slightly patronizing David.
As the author did produce something like seventy novels in her prolific career, it seems reasonable that their quality would fluctuate. A Breath of Fresh Air has a potentially interesting theme, but it never really gets off the ground to fulfill that promise.
This “teen novel” is a lightning fast read and good for a momentary diversion, but, sadly, not much more. A period piece of mild interest and mild enjoyment, not bad enough for a toss into the discard box, but not good enough to wholeheartedly recommend either. Cavanna was a competent enough writer for her chosen genre, and I appreciate what she was trying to do with her themed storylines, but this particular story is not one of her best.