BREATH AND SHADOWS.

Leffland, Ella.

ISBN 10: 0688142710 / ISBN 13: 9780688142711
Published by New York: Morrow, (1999.) dj, 1999
Hardcover
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SIGNED hardcover first edition - First printing. A story of three pairs of people, ranging over three centuries from the late 1700s in Copenhagen to Chicago and Switzerland in the 1980s. The fifth novel by this writer who is not nearly as well known as she deserves to be, partially because each of her books is so different from the others, Dust jacket praise by Anne Tyler and Thomas Keneally among others. SIGNED on the title page. 311 pp. Fine in a fine dustjacket (a new, unread copy.). Bookseller Inventory # 16426

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Bibliographic Details

Title: BREATH AND SHADOWS.

Publisher: New York: Morrow, (1999.) dj

Publication Date: 1999

Binding: Hardcover

Dust Jacket Condition: Dust Jacket Included

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title

Synopsis:

Breath and Shadows is about three pairs of people who live in widely separated periods of time -- the late 1700s, late 1800s, and late 1900s. These people, as gradually becomes clear, are three generations of the same family, none of which has any knowledge of the other two. But there exists down through these far-flung generations a meshwork of cause and effect that reverberates all the way into the present.

The interrelatedness of these three pairs of people, the twining of their destinies, is the core of the book.

Though the novel takes place in three different centuries, it is rooted in such timeless attributes as social mores, class and money, as well as in historical events such as the battle at Leipzig, where Napoleon was crushed, and the ruins of Berlin in 1945.

These events are woven through the private lives of the characters, among whom are a lonely and young officer, a sculptress trying to find truth in the stone she works with, a man terrified of flying who forces himself to fly constantly, a woman who embodies the ineffable bond between an animal and a human being, and others responding to their world, their natures and their needs. It is a novel about the attempt of human beings to know the past, to know one another and to know themselves. It is about love, loss, sexual passion, human perception and the possibility that the search for goodness may be an act of insanity.

Review:

In Howard's End, E.M. Forster exhorts his readers to "only connect." In Breath and Shadows, Ella Leffland shows us how difficult that is to do. All of the characters in her elusive and exquisite fourth novel are connected, though none of them knows how truly intimate those bonds are. Spanning three centuries in the history of one family, Leffland presents us with three major characters: Thorkild the Counselor, a Danish dwarf already approaching the end of his life in the early 1800s; his great-granddaughter, Grethe Rosted, a young wife and mother living outside of Copenhagen in the 1880s; and Paula, their modern-day descendant, born in Illinois but living in Switzerland. Rather than organizing this generational tale chronologically, Leffland chooses to move back and forth between life stories, emphasizing for the reader a connectedness that the protagonists can only dimly understand. Grethe, for example, was orphaned at an early age and raised by relatives. She knows nothing about Thorkild and only a little about her grandfather, Thorkild's son, who escaped death as a child only to meet it on the battlefields in Napoleon's army. Wandering in her garden one day she muses:

If her grandfather had fallen a hairsbreadth differently, he would have perished on the fence spike, a child of tender age, without issue, a child with a child's seed dead before its journey. But for that millimeter her father would not have been born, she in turn would not have been born. Nothing. An eternal void.
Grethe understands that it is "only by the grace of a millimeter" that she is alive; she cannot know that her own grandchild will not even know that much about her. For Paula, just 10 months old when her mother left her father (Grethe's son), grew up never even knowing his name. It is for the reader to make those links that the characters never can: a grieving man's beloved only son becomes, in time, merely an anonymous paper silhouette on his great-granddaughter's wall; a young boy's "magic carpet" is barely rescued from the scrap heap 50 years later by an unknown daughter who will appreciate its beauty without ever understanding its significance. And with each succeeding generation still more will be lost until, at last, the only evidence of one's existence will lie solely in the genes. And yet Leffland's book is anything but depressing; we may all be "but breath and shadow, nothing more," but the fact that we choose to live at all in the face of oblivion is cause for celebration. --Alix Wilber

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