A Mouthful of Air
Amy Koppelman • Two Dollar Radio • 174 pages
Many thanks to the team at Two Dollar Radio for providing me a copy the book in order to write this review.
Themes: Motherhood, Chronic Depression, Suicide, Recovery, 90’s New York
Read this if: You want insight into the experience of postnatal depression.
Don’t read this if: You don’t want to experience someone else’s struggle with suicidal thoughts.
Sometimes it takes time for books to have their moment. When they enter the world, the world is not always interested in hearing what the author has to say. The book lingers, a cult following keeping it alive and quietly passing around some well worn copies, until suddenly, years later, the book resurfaces. And this time, it captures the cultural zeitgeist and a glut of now eager readers. This could very well be the story playing out with Amy Koppelman’s 2003 novel-debut, A Mouthful of Air.
Originally published in 2003, it has been republished by Two Dollar Radio in anticipation of the novel’s cinematic debut on October 29 2021 in a movie starring Amanda Seyfried. Now, a cynic might suspect that the movie is a function of the author’s connection to Hollywood (the author’s partner being a screenwriter), as opposed to anything inherent to the novel, but after reading, even the crustiest cynic would be forced to acknowledge that the book stands on its own merits. I won’t be the first or last to say that it calls to mind the legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” A Mouthful of Air is by no means a happy book, but it is a fantastically written one. And with a debut movie, I imagine this book is going to have a much deserved, and long awaited moment in the public imagination.
The story follows Julie Davis, a young mother who, at story start, has just returned home after a stint in upstate New York recovering from attempted suicide. She continues to be trapped in a cycle of psychological oppression, where she is unable to enjoy any of the blessings in her life, because whenever something good happens to her it only reinforces to her that she is unworthy of the life she has been given. The story is a harrowing dive into the psyche of a woman who has the intense pressures of motherhood piled atop her pre-existing clinical depression. The book chronicles her attempt to wrestle with her mental demons, and enjoy a life which she is trying to be grateful for.
Julie Davis’ inner thoughts are written with such suffocating realness, that it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this narrative is written with a heavy dose of autobiography. So it was little surprise when in a recent interview, Mrs. Koppelman explained that the character of Julie was born out of her own struggle with postnatal depression. “I just sat down whenever I could find alone time and wrote down the words I heard inside my head… Sometimes what I wrote scared me… Julie’s overwhelming sense of shame, her self-loathing and doubt are mine.” And so there’s no better way to introduce the book than with the book’s opening passage, and the introduction of Julie,
She is now to any casual observer, simply another young, tallishly attractive girl in a fur-lined leather coat walking across Broadway. A small grocery bag hangs from her left wrist, dark sunglasses and an olive green cap shield her face. Here she goes pushing her baby’s stroller across Broadway, turning left onto Amsterdam.
Julie is alive. Each breath biting at the cold air in front of her this December day is proof. She rests the bag, filled with imported peaches, by the side of the carriage, pulls the wool blanket up past her baby’s chin. He is sleeping, his pacifier bobbing up and down in his mouth. Tomorrow is his first birthday, and for breakfast she’ll serve him peaches. Puréed peaches. It is 1997, almost the end of 1997, and twenty-five year old Julie Davis smiles at each of these thoughts, grateful to be a housewife.
This is a hard book to get through. Readers can never be more than bystanders, and that’s especially difficult when the story is someone struggling to keep their head above the water. You want to stretch out a helping hand, or offer some words of comfort, but that is of course impossible. I am looking forward to what Amanda Seyfried will bring to the role of Julie when the movie is released, but if the movie is able to capture even half of the emotional distress of the book, then this film is going to be a gut wrenching watch.