Breathing Underwater tells the story of Nick, a sixteen-year-old boy who has kind of a nice life. He's pretty popular. He has a nice car. He's smart and gets good grades. He also has a crap homelife and, at the very beginning of the book, is in serious trouble for physically assaulting his girlfriend, Caitlin.
Ms. Flinn--yep, the author's a woman (and also happens to have written Beastly ... perhaps you've heard of it)--worked at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office and saw the aftermath of dating and domestic violence firsthand. She managed to make Nick both sympathetic and um, what's the word ... I-wish-I-could-smack-him-upside-the-head-ish? Figuratively speaking, of course.
Now, a few bits of reality: recent research indicates that dating violence is not uncommon in teens. In fact, based on surveys and interviews of thousands of teens in different regions of the country, it looks like at least 10% experienced relationship violence in the last year. Even more experienced emotional or verbal abuse.
one of many scary numbers associated with dating/domestic violence (including both opposite- and same-sex relationships). But teen dating violence isn't quite the same as violence between adults. For one thing--in about half of abusive teen dating relationships, the girl is physically aggressive, too. Yep. And in some cases, the girl is the only aggressor.
BUT--the most severe violence is perpetrated by boys, and the victims are disproportionately girls. Here's a really interesting article with all the research results you could want. It also talks about other ways teen partner violence is different from adult relationship violence.
What's fascinating about Breathing Underwater is that it's from the perspective of the abuser. It was realistic and believable, and it made me wince and squirm at certain points. However, I found it a little textbook and neat in its portrayal of Nick's thoughts/justifications, but I suppose I like reading things that are a bit more visceral, with more ragged edges, more eccentricity. Nevertheless, I think Breathing Underwater is a very accessible book, and I can totally see why it's taught in some high school classrooms.
And finally, here's something I was struck with while reading this book: some of the things Nick was thinking, as well as some of the things he did, were eerily similar to the actions of heroes in certain romance novels, both adult and the occasional YA (yeah, my reading tastes are somewhat promiscuous; double-entendre intended).
Stalking? Mm-hmm. Wishing the girly would cover up so only he could see her? Well, yes. Overwhelming rage if another dude thinks she's attractive, or if she smiles at said dude? Uh-huh.
I've never been much of a fan of the alpha hero (just ask my long-suffering beta numero uno, who must tolerate my screwed-up emo-heroes ... and on occasion endure my various pronouncements about wanting to knee hers in the balls). And after Breathing Underwater, I found the line between alpha-hero-macho-guy and domestic-violence-perpetrator all the more blurry.
For an utterly kick-ass post about this phenomenon, check out my agency mate Jaime Reed's blog. Really, you must. I can't say it any better than she does.
So: Have you read Breathing Underwater? Have you read others about relationship violence--in YA or adult fiction? And what about YA romance, ala Twilight? Are you comfortable with that portrayal of teen romance, or does it give you the shivers? Does it lead kids in the right direction? Make them more vulnerable to getting hurt in relationships? Neither?