The Air You Breathe – Frances de Pontes Peebles. New York: Riverhead Books, 2018.
Of all the pinup girls who graced the lockers of GI’s in World War II, none was more electrifying than Carmen Miranda. Known as the Brazilian Bombshell, she got the hips of North America swinging to Samba. At the age of 15, she was already a singing sensation in Rio de Janeiro where her thousands of fans bought her records like hotcakes. When Broadway producer Lee Shubert saw her perform, he immediately signed her for his newest Broadway musical where she became an overnight star. Soon, Hollywood lured her away. There she made nine films with Fox throughout the 1940’s, always dressed like an eye-popping nymph in her signature platform shoes, bare midriff outfits, and her “tutti-frutti” headwear, rolling her eyes in rhythm with her hips. Sadly, she died of a heart attack at the age of 46.
Author Frances de Pontes Peebles draws on Miranda’s life for her novel The Air You Breathe. In her story, the central character is a girl named Graca Pimental who grows up as the “Little Miss” on a sugarcane plantation owned by her father. Believing that singing is as important to life as the air she breathes, she runs away from convent school to pursue a musical career. Graca already has chosen her stage name: Sofia Salvador. “I’m going to sing on a stage,” she declares as a young girl. “I’m going to make people swallow my songs and hold them inside. I’m going to be known. I’m going to be seen.”
Craca’s rise and fall from fame is narrated by her handmaid and best friend, Jega – a dirt-poor, dark-skinned kitchen girl who becomes Graca’s companion and friend. She narrates the story looking back from old age with a voice as sad and aching as the Sambas she later writes. Like Graca, she too dreams as a young girl of being a singer, adopting the stage name Maria Dores. “All my brief life I’d felt a perpetual ache, like a rotten tooth I could never cure,” she reflects. “Jega was not allowed to want anything beyond the most base desires of the human condition: a meal, a bed, survival. But Dores? She’d been granted a notebook, a pencil, lessons, books, and words. She’d been granted music and an audience. She’d been granted a friend.”
Yet despite Jega’s longing to be famous, it is Graca who is truly the star, which forms the novel’s main conflict, just as her early death haunts the narrator’s tone. Whether it be for voice lessons, song lyrics, or a handsome guitarist, the two girls compete to have it all, always knowing that neither can survive without the other. For both, music is their one true love. “Music can do anything,” Jega says. “It can hit any note, move at any speed, play as loudly or as softly as our imaginations allow. In the deepest, purest parts of our imagination, there is no male or female, no good or bad, no villain or hero, no you or I. There is only feeling.” Yet despite their friendship, they each become increasingly selfish in their pursuit of music.
Their stage life begins in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio – an area favored by musicians, artists, intellectuals and “successful businessmen” who offer their protection to merchants and newcomers like the two girls. It is here that they learn the two-four rhythm of Samba – a musical style that dates to Brazil’s history of colonialism and slavery. In its beat and lyrics, there is “lament, humor, rebelliousness, lust, ambition, regret,” says Jega. “And love. There is that, too.”
They take the Samba to Hollywood, along with the backup band, the Blue Moon Boys. Their sound brings them fame, but also destruction as the Hollywood machine amplifies what is already a risky lifestyle filled with alcohol, uppers and downers. The story’s climax occurs when Graca and the Boys return to Brazil to perform at the Copacabana Palace – the one stage she was denied at the start of her career. It becomes her best and worst performance.
What can be said about Samba can be applied to the two girls. They are always there for one another. Crying, laughing, climbing, failing. In short, they are each other’s air. Dores. Graca. Jega. Sofia. The names do not matter. A good friend is simply that. Always there for the other … until they aren’t.
My Wine Recommendation
If you had only one word to describe Carmen Miranda, it would probably be “vibrant.” Weighing less than 100 pounds and barely 5 feet tall, she nevertheless, delivered an energy and charisma that few could resist. For that reason, she deserves a vibrant, full-body wine like Vinicola Guaspari, Vista do Chá Syrah, 2012. Expressive and highly aromatic with multiple layers of blueberry, mature blackberry, bacon, black pepper, smoke and graphite, it earned a 95 from the Decanter World Wine Awards. Its palate is concentrated and firm with a savory, spicy, smoky flavor, with a note of liquorice on the finish. It’s a full-bodied Syrah that has lots of personality, just like Carmen. $45.