Title: Sweet Breath of Memory by Ariella Cohen
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 400 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
Life is in the telling.
With its tree-lined streets, vibrant downtown and curbside planters of spring bulbs, Amberley, Massachusetts, seems a good place for Cate Saunders to start over. It’s been two years since her husband, John, was killed in Iraq and life has been a struggle. Her new job as a caregiver doesn’t pay much, but the locals are welcoming. In fact, Cate has barely unpacked before she’s drawn–reluctantly at first–into a circle of friends.
There’s diner-owner Gaby, who nourishes her customers’ spirits as well as their bodies; feisty Beatrice, who kept the town going when its men marched off to WWII; wise-cracking MaryLou, as formidable as Fort Knox but with the same heart of gold; and, Sheila, whose Italian grocery is the soul of the place. As Amberley reveals itself to be a town shaped by war, Cate encounters another kindred spirit–a Holocaust survivor with whom she feels a deep connection. When revelations about John’s death threaten Cate’s newfound peace of mind, these sisters-in-arms’ stories show her an unexpected way forward. And Cate comes to understand that although we suffer loss alone, we heal by sharing our most treasured memories.
In Sweet Breath of Memory, Ariella Cohen seamlessly weaves past and present into a poignant yet uplifting story of healing.
Although it has been two years since her husband John’s death in Iraq, Cate Saunders is still deeply mourning his loss. After losing her house due to unforeseen circumstances, she accepts a job as a home health care aide in Amberley, MA. The small town is a close-knit community of influential women who take Cate under their protective wing. Through her new friends’ life stories, Cate finds unexpected hope but it is the unexplained discovery of Holocaust survivor’s Miriam Rosen lost diary entries that helps her heal.
Cate’s grief over John’s death is compounded by guilt and her unshakeable need to learn the truth about how he died. Convinced she is indirectly responsible for him being in Iraq in the first place, her efforts to get answers leave her frustrated as she is stonewalled by military leaders who refuse to give her any information about the roadside bombing that killed him. Cate is wracked with regrets over choices she made while he was alive and she cannot help but feel like she took him for granted over the course of their marriage. Her is interest is piqued when she discovers Amberley has been shaped by war and the strong women who tenaciously kept it alive. Interviewing the various women who have been affected by loss and tragedy over the years, Cate discovers how resilient people can be despite enduring unbearable loss and experiencing unspeakable horror.
Cate immediately becomes friends with her landlady and store owner Shelia Morazzo. Shelia is not only a savvy business owner, but she is also Amberley’s mayor. She is hardworking but her long hours still cannot fill the void she feels over her husband’s absence nor does it ease her concerns over his latest stint as a volunteer with Doctors without Borders. Her worry intensifies when he returns home but after getting to know Cate, Sheila finds the courage to discuss how she feels about his time away from home.
Local diner owner Gaby French is quick to welcome Cate into the circle of friends. Gaby cannot cannot help but worry about her new friend due to her uncanny ability to “see” how deeply troubled Cate is. While Gaby can usually help the townspeople recover from their deepest despair, she is unable to shake her guilt from a long ago tragedy that completely altered her life. She is also hiding a secret from everyone in town and when the truth comes out, Gaby finds help from a very unexpected source.
Gruff and outspoken, MaryLou Rice is a mechanic with a heart of gold. Although loathe to admit or show her feelings, MaryLou cares deeply for her friends and she will do just about anything for them. With multiple divorces behind her, she is not exactly looking for love but Cate cannot resist trying her hand at a little matchmaking for the striking beauty.
Town matriarch Beatrice McLean literally kept Amberley alive during World War II after she hired the women left behind to work in her family’s store. She also came up with inventive ways to earn money and provide food for the families during the lean wartime years. At the war’s end, Beatrice kept the women employed instead of filling their positions with returning soldiers. Now in her nineties, Beatrice retains her dignity as her mind and body slowly begin to yield to the ravages of time.
Although she is no longer living, Miriam Rosen’s presence is keenly felt in Amberley. A survivor of the Lodz ghetto in Poland, she spent several years after World War II ended searching for her brothers. When the opportunity arose to come to America, she settled in town where Beatrice hired as s clothing designer her family’s store. Although she rarely spoke of those war torn years, Miriam recorded the atrocities she endured at the hands of the Nazis in her journal. These entries were lost in the years leading up to her death, but the pages mysteriously appear just when Cate needs encouragement most. When Cate decides to enter a writing contest, she ties the various threads of the women’s lives together with Miriam’s wartime experiences. But most importantly, Miriam’s story provides her with the compassion she needs to make a decision about the information she uncovers about John’s death in Iraq.
Sweet Breath of Memory is a magnificent story of friendship, resiliency and compassion that is deeply moving. This beautifully rendered debut novel by Ariella Cohen has a unique storyline and an incredible cast of multi-faceted characters that will leave an indelible mark on readers’ hearts. A heartfelt and captivating story of hope and healing that I absolutely loved and highly recommend to fans of contemporary fiction.