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A Breath After Drowning by Alice Blanchard

By Alice Blanchard On 23 10 2017

By Alice Blanchard
ISBN: 9781785656408
OUT: April 10, 2018


Child psychiatrist Kate Wolfe’s world comes crashing down when one of her young patients commits suicide, so when a troubled girl is left at the hospital ward, she doubts her ability to help. But the girl knows things about Kate’s past, things she shouldn’t know, forcing Kate to face the murky evidence surrounding her own sister’s murder sixteen years before. A murder for which a man is about to be executed. Unearthing secrets about her own family, and forced to face both her difficult relationship with her distant father and the possibility that her mother might also have met a violent end, the shocking final twist brings Kate face to face with her deepest fear.


Alice Blanchard won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction for her book of stories, The Stuntman’s Daughter. Her first novel, Darkness Peering was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s Notable Books. Her second novel, The Breathtaker was an official selection of the NBC Today Book Club.  Alice has received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, a New Letters Literary Award and a Centrum Artists in Residence Fellowship.
Praise for Alice Blanchard's previous books:

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New York Times Book Review

“Nothing could have prepared us for the howling horrors of this gale-force thriller… Blanchard’s artistry whips up excitement… She writes so well that she rattles the rafters.”

Chicago Tribune

“Splendid… riveting and addictive… a heart-pounding, highly literary novel full of stunning art and science.”

New York Daily News

“Brilliant… a dark and stormy novel and a particularly thrilling one.”

Denver Rocky Mountain News

“What makes The Breathtaker so exceptional is that it works on so many levels… A real twister of a tale.”

San Jose Mercury News

“Blanchard delivers a knockout blow… A complete treat for readers.”

Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of Twelve Times Blessed

“A heart-tingling, heart-squeezing mystery… filled with poignancy… eerie and deliciously scary.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Fantastic… Blanchard has concocted one hell of a whirlwind ride… A tension-filled thriller that will leave readers spinning.”

From Publisher’s Weekly:

“Blanchard’s gripping second thriller follows a small town police chief’s pursuit of a serial killer who strikes only during tornadoes, but the “Debris Killer” is only one of the highlights of this fast-moving shocker, which also features the keen characterizations and fine atmospherics of the author’s first thriller, Darkness Peering… As tornado season comes on, more victims are discovered, and Charlie begins to suspect someone very close to him, before the murderer leads him on a final terrifying chase that will have readers gasping… Gale force sales are predicted.”

From Library Journal: * starred review

“ * Starred Review: Blanchard (Darkness Peering) has laced together a breathtaking vortex of a story about love, death, murder and ordinary people living chaotic lives in Promise, OK, and its surroundings--known, notoriously, as tornado alley. Well paced, well plotted, and beautifully written, Breathtaker succeeds as a gripping thriller and a well-told tale. John Wells Productions (White Oleander) has bought the film rights. Highly recommended for all popular collections.”

From Romantic Times: “Top Pick, ****1/2 GOLD”

“In a word--wow! Blanchard has outdone herself in this unique and mesmerizing thriller. With both an angry Mother Nature and a deranged serial killer on the loose, THE BREATHTAKER grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. An astonishing ride!”





Kate Wolfe’s 3 PM appointment stood in the doorway wearing a jaw-dropping miniskirt, a light blue tee, plaid knee socks and chunky platform heels.  15-year-old Nikki McCormack suffered from bipolar disorder.  She believed that she was the center of everything.  The glue holding the universe together.  She refused to take her meds.  She lived in a world of her own creation.

     “Hello, Nikki,” Kate said warmly.  “Come on in.”

     The teenager took three small steps into the spacious office and looked around as if she didn’t recognize the place.  It was all part of the ritual.  Nikki scrutinized the charcoal carpet, the blue-grey walls with their framed degrees, Kate’s swivel chair and her large oak desk, as if something might’ve changed in her absence.  She’d been coming to therapy for seven months now, and the only thing that ever changed was the mood outside the windows—cloudy, sunny, whatever—but Nikki wanted the place to always be the same.  Another quirk of her illness.

     “Hm,” the girl said, index finger poised between glossy lips.

     “Hm good?  Or hm bad?”

     “Just hmm.”

     Okay, it was going to be one of those days.

     The slap-happy weather forecasters had been predicting snow.  They argued over inches.  It was deep into winter, February in Boston, but Nikki wasn’t dressed for the cold.  She was dressed to impress.  She wore a flimsy vinyl jacket over her skimpy outfit and a red silk scarf—no gloves, no layers, no leggings.  Her pale, slender body was covered in gooseflesh, and her nipples showed through the flimsy tee, but Kate knew better than to suggest more seasonal attire—that would be judgmental.  Nikki might storm out of the office like she did last time, and that would be counter-productive to her therapy, so Kate ignored her maternal instinct and kept a steady focus on Nikki’s eyes—the azure depth of her sly intelligence.  “Have a seat.” 

     Nikki hesitated on the threshold, and Kate could read her emotions morphing across her face like the Times Square news ticker—the girl doubted she was welcome anywhere.  She didn’t feel loved.  She believed people were laughing at her.  It shocked Kate to discover that such a smart, healthy, promising young person could have such low self-esteem.  It was more than troubling.

     “I’ve been expecting you,” Kate said, coaxing her in like a kitten.  “Have a seat, Nikki.”

     The girl entered the office with gawky teenage dignity, sat in the camel-colored leather chair and crossed her waifish legs.  Her chunky shoes with their thick wedge heels looked ridiculous on her and were probably dangerous in this slush and snow.  Nikki wore enamel rings on every finger and a slender gold chain around her fawnlike neck.  She was heavily made up, with careful strokes of peach lipstick on her skeptical mouth and too much gummy mascara on her paranoid eyes.  She came across as beguilingly bumbling, and yet there was something disturbingly passive-aggressive about her. 

     “So,” Kate began.  “How are you?”

     The girl’s attention wandered everywhere.  She studied the framed art prints on the walls, the overstuffed inbox on Kate’s desk, and finally Kate herself.  “Yeah, okay.  So I’ve been wondering… how do you deal with your patients and stuff?”

     “My patients?” Kate repeated, wanting to be sure she understood.

     “I mean, because we’re so messed up?  How do you cope?  Day after day?  How do you sit there and listen to us whine and complain and kvetch—how do you cope?”

     Kate smiled.  She’d only recently begun her fledgling practice.  Her framed degrees barely covered two feet of wall space behind her desk.  She had a bachelor’s degree in psychiatry and neuroscience from Boston University, and a medical doctorate from Harvard.  The birch bookcase held dozens of scientific journals containing articles co-authored by her.  On her desktop was the psychiatrist’s Bible, the DSM-IV, the one resource she was constantly reaching for.  “How do I cope with what exactly?”

     “With the stress?  From having to deal with us crazies?”

     “Well, first of all, I don’t consider my patients ‘crazies.’”  A little white lie—some of them were truly bonkers.  “We all deal with stress in different ways.  For instance, I like to go running and hiking and work it off that way.” 

     “Seriously?”  The girl rolled her eyes.  “Because I can’t picture you running the Boston Marathon or anything, doc.”

     “Did I say marathon?  Oh no.  Not me.”  Kate laughed.  “I like to run and hike and go rock-climbing for fun.  It helps with the stress.”  She was understating it just a bit.  She loved to go running and hiking and climbing.  These activities were her biggest release, next to fucking her boyfriend. 

     “So how did you become a shrink?” Nikki asked, switching subjects. 

     “It was a long process.  I got my B.A. and did my doctorate, and then there was the internship, the residency and the fellowship.  Finally, just this past year, I’ve started seeing private patients, like you.”

     “Oh.”  Nikki smirked.  “So I’m a guinea pig?”

     “I wouldn’t say that.”

     “No?  What would you say?”

     Kate smiled, enjoying the way Nikki confronted the world—part adult skepticism, part naïve bravado.  “Well, I consider you to be a bright, intuitive, sensitive human being, who just so happens to have bipolar disorder, which she needs help managing.”

     Nikki jiggled her foot impatiently.  “How old are you?”

     Okay, that was out of left field.  “Old enough.  I’ll be 32 soon.”

     “How soon?”

     Kate’s relaxed smile contained a thorn of frustration in it, but she did her best to draw on the fathomless well of patience she’d accrued during her residency at McLean Hospital in Belmont, where she’d dealt with the craziest of crazies.  Real berserkers.  Nikki would’ve been impressed.  “Any day now,” she answered vaguely.

     “Wow.  Thirty-two.  And you aren’t married yet?”


     “Why not?”

     “My boyfriend asks me that all the time.”

     “He does?”  Nikki laughed.  “James is right.  You should marry him.”

     James.  Kate had mentioned him a few times, but she didn’t like hearing his name echoed back to her from the mouth of this mixed-up kid.  As if Kate and James were characters from some popular TV sitcom.

     “You have a great laugh,” she said, redirecting the conversation.  “And a terrific smile.”

     Nikki smirked.  “You’re one of the privileged few, doc.  I don’t smile very often.”

     “I know.  Why not?”

     She shrugged.  “Maybe because life sucks?”

     “Sometimes it does suck.  Sometimes it doesn’t.”

     “Wow.  You’re honest.  Most adults won’t say ‘suck.’”

     “Well, I want you to trust me.”

     “I do.  Pretty much.”


“So you’re going on vacation and leaving me all by my lonesome?”  Nikki made a frowny-face.  “Please don’t go, doc.  Not now.  I know.  Selfish me.”

     “Well,” Kate said hesitantly, and then smiled.  “Everybody deserves a vacation now and then, don’t you think?”

     “Just kidding.  LOL.  Sarc.”

     But they both knew she wasn’t.

     “Is James going with you?  On your vacation?”

     This session was veering dangerously off-course, and the girl’s questions were becoming a distraction from her therapy.  Kate tried to right the ship, but she wasn’t on her game today.  They still had a lot of packing to do.  “Why all the questions?” she asked.  “What is it about me going on vacation that concerns you?”

     Nikki scratched her chin with a painted nail and stared at something beyond Kate’s shoulder.  “What are those?  Nuts?”  She pointed at the bookcase.  “Are you trying to tell me something, doc?  Like maybe I’m nuts?” 

     Kate was startled to find a jar of Planter’s Roasted Peanuts on top of her bookcase.  Ira must have left them there.  Dr. Ira Lippencott was Kate’s mentor, a brilliant Harvard-educated psychiatrist with an off-beat sense of humor and a maverick approach to psychotherapy.  “No,” she said calmly.  “That’s a coincidence.”

     “Are you sure?  Because, you know, theoretically, I am nuts.”

     Kate couldn’t help smiling.  “I assure you it’s completely unintentional.”

     “Ah ha!  Nothing’s unintentional.”  Nikki pointed an accusing finger at her and grinned.  “You told me that once, remember?  Nothing is unintentional.”

     “Ah ha.”  Kate tried to appear wise but couldn’t help wondering if Ira had left those peanuts in her office on purpose, as a sort of test.  And Kate had failed to even notice them.  How long had they been sitting there, gathering dust?  He was probably wondering what the hell was wrong with his favorite former resident that she didn’t even notice the “nuts” on her bookshelf.  He often told her, “You need to develop a sense of humor about your profession, Kate.” 

     “What’s that?” Nikki asked, pointing at Kate’s desk, her attention wandering all over the place.  “Is that new?”

     Kate glanced down.  “Oh.  It’s a paperweight.  A trilobite.” 

     “Wow.  And a big one.”  Nikki McCormack had an IQ of 120.  She knew perfectly well what a trilobite was.  “Coltraenia oufatensis.  Of the order Phacopida.”  She shifted around in her seat and yanked her creeping miniskirt back down.  “Hey, I just thought of something.  What if I end up like that?”

     “Like what?”

     “Like a trilobite on someone’s desk?  Maybe a thousand years from now?  Or maybe just my skull, holding down the paperwork so it doesn’t blow away?  I could end up like that, right?”

     “I doubt that very much.”

     “Why do you doubt it?  Why couldn’t I end up a fossil on somebody’s desk?”

     “Is that what you’re worried about?  Being studied like a fossil?” 

     Her lips drew together in a long flat line.

     Kate picked up the trilobite and held it in her hand.  “Is that what you think, Nikki?  That I’m studying you, weighing your sanity?  That you mean nothing more to me than this trilobite?”

     Her troubled eyes glazed over, and she looked away.

     “Because nothing could be further from the truth.  You’re very real to me, and very much alive, and it’s my biggest hope that someday soon, you’ll learn to love yourself as much as others love you.”

     Tears squeezed out of her beautiful eyes and spilled down her cheeks.  Even when she was crying, Nikki held herself perfectly erect, with ballerina-like discipline.  Eight months ago, Kate had diagnosed her during her crucial 4-week stay at Tillmann-Stafford Hospital’s Child Psychiatric Unit, and she’d come to the conclusion that the girl suffered from bipolar disease and major depression, which made it impossible to predict if she would be alive five years from now.  Would she live to see 32?  Kate certainly hoped so, but the odds weren’t great.  Her role was to vastly improve those odds.

     “Nikki,” she said softly.  “We’ve discussed this before, but I’d like to brush on it again.  Since I’ll be on vacation next week, Dr. Lippencott would be happy to see you for therapy while I’m gone.  Can we set up an appointment?”





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