Published by Lake Union Publishing on July 22, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Social Issues
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours for review consideration.
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From the award-winning author of A Watershed Year comes a heartrending story of unlikely bonds made under dire straits. Holly is a young widow with two kids living in a ramshackle house in the same small town where she grew up wealthy. Now barely able to make ends meet editing the town’s struggling newspaper, she manages to stay afloat with help from her family. Then her mother suffers a stroke, and Holly’s world begins to completely fall apart.
Vivian has lived an extraordinary life, despite the fact that she has been confined to an iron lung since contracting polio as a child. Her condition means she requires constant monitoring, and the close-knit community joins together to give her care and help keep her alive. As their town buckles under the weight of the Great Recession, Holly and Vivian, two very different women both touched by pain, forge an unlikely alliance that may just offer each an unexpected salvation.
Although The Virtues of Oxygen is fiction, it is an accurate and respectful look at Americans who live just above the poverty line, struggling to make it paycheck to paycheck. Readers get a sense of the enormous emotional toll this takes on people, the embarrassment that comes along with attempts to live normally while not having enough money between paychecks, and the stress of not knowing if your job is secure or not. It was such a breath of fresh air to see Holly’s situation presented as is, without the author sneaking in any political jabs or commentary of her own. The reader is trusted and given the space to connect directly with the characters.
I like that Vivian isn’t overly optimistic and heroic, but she’s not cynical and bitter, either. She has her dark moments, realizations, and struggles. She also has an especially quirky sense of humor! She feels realistic, despite how difficult it is to imagine decades of life in an iron lung. Speaking of which, I had no idea there were people who were confined to an iron lung for life! It turns out Vivian was inspired by the very real Martha Mason, author of the memoir Breath: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung.
Whether the focus was on Holly or Vivian, I found myself looking forward to each shift with the same amount of anticipation. One character wasn’t carrying the more of the story than the other; both perspectives were equally engaging.
The ending wrapped up a little too conveniently for me. It felt a bit rushed compared to its weight. Some readers might be bothered by the ending; my own feelings are mixed. It didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book, but I can’t deny that I would have liked a bit more time with the conclusion.