My rating: ★★★☆☆
When I sat down to read One Breath Away I was hoping for an awesomely emotionally story about a school shooting. Unfortunately, that’s not what this is.
One Breath Away has, at its core, a great storyline. What it didn’t have was focus. Throughout the novel, Gudenkauf is trying to tell two intertwined but surprisingly separate stories: the family drama of Will Thwaite and the mystery/thriller of the gunman at Broken Branch.
To tell these stories, readers are offered five different points of view: Will Thwaite; his granddaughter, Augie; his daughter, Holly; his grandson PJ’s teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Oliver; and Broken Branch’s only female officer, Meg Barrett.
These characters are all tied together by the shooting plotline, but for most of the book, much of the narrative is focused on the history of the Thwaite family. While she sets up the shooting plotline, Gudenkauf spends over two hundred pages explaining what went wrong between Will and Holly, how Augie and PJ came to live with Will in spite of the family rift, what’s going wrong again between Augie and Will, and what went wrong between Holly and Augie’s father.
After building up so much emotional baggage for Will, Holly, Augie, and PJ, I was left with the impression that their story was the central one, and I fully expected a very satisfying emotional ending to tie up the inherent loose ends. I wanted a poignant scene between the characters to show that while the family’s rift isn’t healed by any means, there’s a newfound hope that they might be a family again after a decade and a half of cut ties.
That emotional ending never came, and it left me quite underwhelmed. For me, the story was riding on the family drama; I considered the shooting drama little more than a catalyst to bring the family drama to its climax. But in the last quarter of the book, it became clear that Gudenkauf had a totally different sense of her book than I did. It suddenly struck me that there were two very different plot-lines battling for control within One Breath Away and I’d put my hopes on the wrong one.
That’s where I think One Breath Away disappointed me. In trying to tell two different stories, the novel never had enough time to completely tell either of them. There’s a very bait-and-switch feel to it, as if I the beginning of one book had been bound into a single volume with the end of another book. The focus of the first half of the book simply didn’t match up with the focus of the second.
I don’t know. The entire thing just seemed confused to me, as if Gudenkauf wasn’t quite sure which story she wanted to write. On one hand, Augie’s implied to be the main character; she’s inside the school, she’s the focus point of Holly and Will’s points of view, and she’s written in first person. Yet the actual plot–the shooting–has a different main character entirely, and then the only person to earn a satisfying resolution is a third separate character.
One Breath Away certainly isn’t a bad book. But as far as I’m concerned, it definitely wasn’t what it should have been.