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Updated: Aug 3, 2021

By Joyce Carol Oates

A Poignant and Moving Story of Love, Loss and Overwhelming Grief



Michaela and Gerard McManus temporarily move from their home in Cambridge, MA, to the rugged and dry landscape of Santa Tierra, New Mexico. Gerard is to be the director of the Santa Tierra Institute for Advanced Research. But soon after they arrive, Gerard is stricken with a mysterious illness, pneumonia, and ultimately diagnosed with adenocarcinoma.

Michaela is desperate to keep Gerard breathing. He is neither fully awake nor fully conscious. She cares for him day and night, only to ultimately realize that her selfless love is not enough to breathe life into him.

Upon his death, her nightmare has only just begun, as she must learn to survive the loss. Overwhelmed with grief, Michaela imagines seeing Gerard in their house, outside the hospital, at a restaurant, at the museum, and on a hike. Wherever she goes, Gerard, her husband of twelve years and closest friend, is still there, but not. Michaela believes he wants her to come with him, he is waiting for her, and she is tempted to go. But she must breathe, breathe!


BREATHE is an atmospheric tale of a lost love and the grief process that follows. This dark story is surreal, full of raw anguish and hallucinations. The writing is hauntingly beautiful, lyrical, and heart-wrenching

Joyce Carol Oates easily transports us to the desert topography of New Mexico and paints a revealing and realistic picture of a woman facing an unimaginable emotionally profound journey. (The story was particularly heart-wrenching for me because my brother-in-law was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma while I was reading this book. Eek!) BREATHE, while beautifully written, may be much too descriptive and emotional for those that have experienced or are experiencing loss of this nature.

Oates lost her first husband, Raymond Smith, of 47 years unexpectedly to pneumonia in 2008. That loss on the author must have significantly informed her writing for BREATHE. She experienced suicidal grieving but followed the first rule of being a “good widow” and stayed alive. Oates lost her second husband, Charles Gross, after ten years of marriage in 2019. BREATHE is dedicated to him.

Special thanks to Netgalley and Ecco for an advance reading copy of this book.

Publisher Ecco

Published August 3, 2021

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