Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

just breathe 248x249 Just Breathe by Cammie McGovernBuy Just Breathe
Special price $13.99 Regular Price: $18.99
Publisher: HarperTeen
Format: Hardcover / eBook / Audiobook
Narrators: Caitlin Kelly and Josh Hurley
Reviewer: Melissa on May 31, 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the critically acclaimed author of Say What You Will and A Step Toward Falling comes a deeply emotional new novel called Just Breathe, which is perfect for fans of Five Feet Apart and The Fault in Our Stars.

I’ve never before read any of Cammie McGovern‘s novels, but as someone who gravitates toward contemporary YA novels in general, the subjects of her books always piqued my interest at Frenzy Presents at Harper Collins Canada’s head office. When I saw the Just Breathe audiobook available to read on the Libby app, I knew I had to pick it up. I had just read and watched the movie version of Five Feet Apart for the first time toward the end of 2019, so when I saw that her latest novel featured the dual POVs of Jamie, a quiet 10th grader who eats her lunch alone everyday and has depression, and David, a popular 12th grader who has cystic fibrosis, or CF, I automatically borrowed it from the Toronto Public Library.

If you’re looking for a book that deals with both chronic physical and mental illness in a sensitive way, then I highly recommend you pick up Just Breathe. This is a beautiful story that had me on the verge of tears for long stretches of time, and while I never quite ended up sobbing, it left me feeling emotionally raw while I was listening to the audiobook and for awhile after I finished it. The audiobook is narrated in alternating sections by Caitlin Kelly for Jamie’s parts and Josh Hurley for David’s parts. It’s about two characters who are holding onto life as best they can, but their experiences with CF and depression put them both in a kind of liminal space between life and death, much like the characters in David’s favourite movie, Wings of Desire. While they are very much alive, their chronic illnesses put them a lot closer to death than anyone else they know, and this means that as their friendship grows, they are able to have deep and meaningful conversations on topics that most teens would be incapable of talking about in depth and, likely, really uncomfortable discussing, like David’s girlfriend Sharon.

How does a friendship between these two very different teens even begin? Starting with a series of emails between Jamie and David in which she attempts to convince him that she shouldn’t be his pen pal because she’s just “not good at this,” readers learn that she saved his life. Or rather she did according to David. According to Jamie, she just called a nurse to help when she noticed that he was bowled over in pain during her volunteer shift as a Smile Awhiler on the pediatrics floor. From this initial back and forth email exchange, their friendship develops to regular stops in his hospital room while Jamie is volunteering and frequent text messages, emails, phone calls, and IMs to daily visits whether she’s volunteering or not, and eventually, secretive trips outside of the hospital.

How would their friendship move from being just physically “there” for David and allowing them to talk about difficult subject matters when they need to? Well, you start small—just like any friendship. Jamie already knows who David is from school because she’s seen him give his lunchtime announcements and heard other kids say “Shine on” to him for awhile before realizing it wasn’t an insult, but he doesn’t know her. From Jamie’s time in the hospital for depression, she knows that sometimes occupying your mind makes getting through the mental and physical exhaustion of illness easier. She suggests that David try origami and demonstrates how to make some intricately-folded animals because she enjoyed during art therapy. However, unlike Jamie’s illness, David’s causes some physical disabilities that affect his ability to fold the paper crisply; people with CF often have clubbed fingers. Once she learns about this issue, she brings him a paper folding tool that she happened to have at home. She also recommends a few movies that she loves to him—one’s that they don’t have on the Smile Awhile cart—but that she brings him from her home collection, and after he’s had the chance to watch them, they have in-depth discussions about everything from the plot and the characters to the cinematography, and everything in between. It’s from these small, thoughtful gestures that their friendship is built.

While the foundation of their friendship is amazing, like Jamie’s mom, I found myself getting increasingly worried the further into the novel I got. Her mom is worried that she’s crushing on this older guy who could realistically die at any time because he has a terminal illness, which would leave Jamie in a really vulnerable place with her mental health. Jamie denies it, of course, and it’s easy to do because David has a girlfriend named Sharon, even though Jamie knows he spends more time with her than he does with his girlfriend lately. But when David convinces her to take the chance of helping him get out of the hospital a few times, the stakes get higher and higher, and you can’t help but think that something really bad is going to happen to both of these characters.

McGovern knows how to pull readers along with her characters through both their good and bad decisions. Not only does she make readers care about Jamie and David in a way that is so necessary for a contemporary YA story, but also I loved that the author realistically portrays what it’s like to interact with people who don’t have CF. Whereas Five Feet Apart primarily focuses on the CF patients and paid hospital staff who care for them, Just Breathe really demonstrates the emotional labour David takes on to meet his parents, sister, girlfriend, and friends on a level that would be comfortable to them as well as the toll it takes on him. There is so much more that I could say, but I’d rather leave more the story a mystery so that you can enjoy it as much as I did when I picked it up.

If you’re looking for a realistic book about characters who meet and find a way to connect over the things they have in common despite their distinct chronic illnesses, then you must check out Just Breathe. You seriously won’t regret it.

Buy Just Breathe today for a great price!

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