Review: The Virtues of Oxygen, by Susan Schoenberger

About the book, The Virtues of Oxygen The Virtues of Oxygen

Paperback: 242 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (July 22, 2014)

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.

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About the author, Susan Schoenberger Susan-Schoenberger_Photo-Credit-Shana-Sureck

Susan Schoenberger is the author of the award-winning debut novel A Watershed Year. Before turning her attention to writing fiction, she worked as a journalist and copyeditor for many years, most recently at The Hartford Courant and The Baltimore Sun. She currently serves as the director of communications at Hartford Seminary and teaches writing classes at the Mark Twain House in Hartford. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, with her husband and three children.

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My Thoughts

You would think that a story about a woman who spends her entire life in an iron lung would be pretty grim, but The Virtues of Oxygen is anything but. Author Susan Shoenberger gives us not only a glimpse into what is now a very rare form of disability, but also a character piece about two women who are not in competition with each other, but work as partners.

Vivian, the one in the iron lung, is the perfect example of how the internet has, and still can, change lives. We get her backstory as a series of unaired podcasts, flashbacks into the life of a once boisterous and vibrant child, whose mind was both a blessing and a curse for much of her life.

Holly is not in an iron lung, but circumstance has given her a life almost as limited as Vivian’s. The death of her husband, the economic recession – both have conspired against her, to the point where she’s in danger of losing her house, when we first meet her.

Together, these two women move from companions to friends to a sort of chosen family, as each learns more about the other and herself, and opens herself enough to both give and receive assistance, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or financial.

Yes, there are other characters in the novel, but all revolve around these two strong personalities, Vivian and Holly. Holly and Vivian.

I’ll confess that while I’ve never been as close to Holly was at homelessness, I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck in a society where even those of us who would normally be considered upper-middle-class are sometimes one or two paychecks away from foreclosure.

I’ll also confess that Vivian made such an impression on me that I spent no small amount of time on Google, reading about real women who lived in iron lungs after being stricken by polio, including the woman whose story actually inspired Shoenberger to write this novel.

The Virtues of Oxygen is a gripping read, and the ending, while somewhat predictable, is also true to the characters the author created. It’s also the ending I wanted them to have, one filled with the easy breath of hope.

Goes well with Bacon, eggs, and a toasted English muffin, eaten at a local diner.

TLC Book Tours

This review is part of a blog tour sponsored by TLC Book Tours. For more information, including the complete tour schedule, click HERE.