‘Note to Sixth-Grade Self’ by Julie Orringer

A story for June
This whole collection by Julie Orringer is wonderful. Nine stories of people learning to navigate life, loss and relationships, learning how to breathe underwater. ⁠ All the stories explore the moments of transition between childhood and adulthood, family and independence.
In Note to Sixth-Grade Self, the weather is warm and the sky is bright. It opens with: “On Wednesdays wear a skirt. A skirt is better for dancing.” The tone is hopeful but we soon realise the narrator writes to a younger version of herself, guiding her through her very painful pre-teen years. Cruel girls tease her in their ballroom dancing class, they bully her in and out of school. But there’s a final, redemptive scene in which her understanding of people, her hopefulness, is rewarded. The story is mesmerising, and tender. Very wise, very beautiful.⁠

Published in the Paris Review, Winter, 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in How to Breathe Underwater, Knopf, 2003, which is now available as a Vintage Contemporary, 2005

‘The Isabel Fish’ by Julie Orringer

Where was Julie Orringer when I was “coming of age” like most of the characters in her stories? It’s not that I’d have been able to relate to all their predicaments – I still don’t know what the ‘Devvies and Sallies’ are that Tessa is trying not to take while babysitting her little niece in ‘Care’ – but it might have been enough knowing those characters were out there. Again, it was hard to narrow my choice – writing this I’m worrying I cheated this entire exercise, picking collections rather than stories – but perhaps it doesn’t matter when each story is so good. ‘The Isabel Fish’ is the title story in How to Breathe Underwater in all but name: a teenage girl needs to learn how to breathe underwater in preparation for a family holiday to St Maarten in the Dutch Virgin Islands so her parents sign her and her brother up for scuba lessons in the local Y pool. But if that sounds rosy, the set up is anything but. The girl is the “canker of her brother Sage’s life”. He hates her because of what happened “last November”, which we quickly learnt involved his girlfriend, Isabel, drowning after a car crash. His sister survived. There is revenge, guilt and, unexpectedly, hope, all woven together with dexterity and panache. I cried. 

Collected in How to Breathe Underwater, Viking, 2004. First published in The Yale Review, July 2003

‘The Isabel Fish’ by Julie Orringer

The first novel I ever reviewed was The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, and I did not love it because all the challenges in the novel arose from the situation, not the psyches of the main characters themselves. But I did like her recent novel, The Flight Portfolio, and also her first book, the short story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which included some beautifully-told stories from the perspective of children, like this one, in which a girl tries to get over bereavement by learning to swim. 

First published in the Yale Review, Vol 91, Issue 3, July 2003. Collected in How to Breathe Underwater, Knopf 2003, which is now available as a Vintage Contemporary, 2005