I bought this novel because I am keen to support small presses, and because I'm interested in Judaism, and stories about growing up and about immigrants. 'Holding My Breath' is the story of a close Jewish family, living in Winnipeg, Canada, and told in the first person by Beth, a young girl who longs to become an astronomer. Beth's grandparents die while she is still quite small, and she grows up living with her two aunts (both still quite young) as well as her family. Her aunt Carrie (who disappears for a while during Beth's childhood) is a gifted seamstress and storyteller, who nurses a secret. Her aunt Sarah, who nurses ambitions to be an actress, is a lively extrovert who sometimes takes Beth with her when she's going out on dates, who, after much heartbreak, marries a steady businessman but who, after a few years of marriage and motherhood, abandons him to roam the USA as a travelling performer. And then there are Beth's parents, her gentle, devout father and her ambitious and commanding mother, a true matriarch, but full of love and pride for her daughter. Beth grows up confident in her family's love for her. But as she becomes increasingly interested in her academic studies, she realizes that a time is coming when she may have to leave her family behind - even though her mother has been in poor health.
Ludwig lovingly captures the atmosphere of a close family: the little jokes, the family dinners, the traditions (such as setting a place for Beth's dead uncle, from whom she's inherited her love of physics, at the yearly Passover dinner). And she writes well about Beth's mixed feelings about her mother - passionate love mixed with the uneasy sense that her mother is trying to control her. It's just a pity the characters are not more interesting. Beth seems to cruise through childhood and adolescence with nothing really touching her - I wasn't even convinced by her passion for astronomy until the later sections of the book. Goldie, her mother, is a stereotypical ambitious mum who only really becomes interesting in the final pages, when she has to face up to her daughter leaving home; we never get much of a picture of Beth's father other than that he's 'nice', and we never learn quite enough about Beth's aunts (who the man was who made Carrie pregnant, whether Sarah ever loved her husband, what the effect of losing their parents young was on Carrie and Sarah). There are endless rather flat descriptions of Beth spending time with her friends, all with 1950s-y names such as Norma or Marilyn, of family shopping trips and of dinners with tasteless sounding meals such as tuna noodle casserole. The small-town world of Winnipeg was vividly depicted but came over as unbearably claustrophobic, with little sense until the end of the book that there was a world elsewhere. For immigrants, the Levy family seemed incredibly insular, and we never learnt enough about how they got to Canada and why they were in Winnipeg. Also, for an Orthodox family religion seemed to matter much less to them than customs such as dinners on feast days - we never got much of an idea of what Beth really thought about God or her faith - a pity, as this would have been interesting. All in all the story read like a rather dull memoir, with virtually nothing happening and most of the action (Carrie's disgrace, Sarah's travels, Uncle Philip's death) taking place offstage.
I don't like giving this book such a low rating as Ludwig clearly took a lot of trouble writing it, but it really didn't grab me at all.