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.
5 ***** stars!
This was such a good book! It was the fictional story of how women’s lives in a small town were intertwined… some from the beginning and other’s coming later into their lives. It depicts, though each had experienced trauma, grief or pain in different ways, how each helped the other throughout their lives. While the main story was about 1 year of life for these women in the small town, characters would reflect back to previous times, sharing difficult parts of their lives. It related, in a very beautiful way, how each of us may have an impact we may not even realize on those around us, or even people we don’t know, through the people we do. The book ended on a good note too, which I liked. I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
3 *** stars
This is a women’s fiction novel about a woman named Cate trying to put her life back together after her husband was killed in a mysterious wartime accident. She moves to a little town called Amberley to get away, find work, and heal. It turns out that the town is a better place for healing than she had ever thought possible, as she meets many new friends who help her along the way.
The book was good, although it wasn’t really my kind of literature. There were a couple things that I disliked about it. One was the hint of magic the book has, the way a main character is telepathic and the way the book seems to hint at the existence of ghosts. It was already unbelievable enough (especially the ending) that the author did not have to make it even more so.
This book contained so many similes, metaphors, and analogies that they really distracted from the story itself. It was very nice-sounding, but belonged more in a poem than a novel. Some of the flowery speech in this book comes off as corny hyperbole, or occasionally outright weirdness. For instance, when somebody is asked what the secret to growing good onions is she replies: “All it takes to grow an onion is faith. I bury them alive, pushing them into the ground when they’re just little bitty things. It takes faith not to panic when you’re thrust into darkness. If you do, doubt rots you from within. The onions that have faith survive and flourish; those that don’t have backbone turn to mush.” Nice sentiment (although a bit odd), but it isn’t something that somebody would actually say in reply to that question. If somebody actually said that to me, I might think they weren’t quite right in the head.
All in all, I’d give the book three stars, but I’m not likely to read it again myself.
Interview With Author Ariella Cohen
twogalsandabook: Have you always wanted to be an author? How long have you been writing?
Ariella Cohen: Yes. When I was younger, birthdays were spent in our local bookshop. We each (3 siblings) got to choose a new book, regardless of whose birthday it was. We’d spend an hour debating the merits of this or that novel before deciding. My brothers headed for the Sci-Fi section, and my sister and I for historical fiction (Anya Seton, Norah Lofts, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney). I started writing my own stories very young but never considered making a career of writing. I’d watched my mother struggle to raise us and that convinced me I needed to pursue a ‘real’ career. Not something as risky as art. Yet even though I’d pushed my writing dream to the back of my thoughts, I tinkered over the years with short fiction and even sold a few things. Wonderful people like Elie Wiesel encouraged me to keep writing but I didn’t really find my ‘voice’ – or the courage to try a novel – until I was living with my mother as her caregiver. Much like the novel’s protagonist, my life path took a turn I hadn’t seen coming when first my sister and then my mother fell ill and I stepped into the role of caregiver. That I finally found my writer’s ‘voice’ at such a difficult time is surprising, or perhaps not. Caregiving strips one to the core. Being vulnerable and open like that is the first step to writing authentically. Or so I told myself when, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I set out to tell this story.
twogalsandabook: Have you always enjoyed reading? Are you an avid reader now? Do you have any favorite books/authors/poets?
Ariella Cohen: I can’t remember learning how to read so it must have been early on. My Mom was a teacher so there were always books scattered about…and two weeks’ worth of the New York Times!
Books were our passports to the world. We didn’t have a car until I was in third grade, but with books my siblings and I could go anywhere. Back in time and into the future; from one corner of the globe to the other, and into the minds of people so very different from ourselves.
It’s odd but I don’t read as much now as I’d like because work gets in the way. When I can, I reach for historical fiction and many ‘old’ favorites. Thomas Hardy’s writing tops the list. I relate to that tug-o-war between celebrating Nature and lamenting how rigged everything (including Nature) is against the ‘little guy.’ And I applaud his pathos when writing about the working poor and the clash of modernism with the idealized golden days of old. I love Anthony Trollope’s humor, and admire how the Brontë sisters imagined such full worlds when their own society was so limited. And, of course, Jane Austen is peerless.
twogalsandabook: Do you feel your favorite books or authors/poets have influenced your writing style?
Ariella Cohen: Not directly since, as much as we love them, one can’t write in a 19th Century style. Imagine an editor’s reaction to receiving anything as detail heavy as The Woman in White? The best writers shouldn’t influence us to do more than find our own voices.
twogalsandabook: Would you care to share anything about yourself aside from your writing?
Ariella Cohen: I own a grant writing company in Maine. Royalty revenue is very unpredictable so, after working for a decade or so in nonprofit, I decided to consult. I’m fortunate to work from home and my office overlooks a lovely garden with views of the ocean.
twogalsandabook: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Ariella Cohen: I haven’t experienced it, actually.
twogalsandabook: How do you deal with negative reviews or criticism?
Ariella Cohen: I take all feedback in stride. Creative writing is an art but once you try to sell what you’ve written, it’s business and one shouldn’t go into business without a thick skin. Publishers, reviewers, distributors – their evaluations aren’t personal. In fact, many who pass judgment on what you’ve written actually haven’t read it, or not more than a summary. Of course, readers see the novel through a unique prism, one informed by their own experience, needs, and preferences. Each of reads fiction differently and there’s no ‘right’ way to do so. I really appreciate any reader taking the time to share her thoughts, whether she enjoyed the book or not.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any special writing atmosphere or rituals?
Ariella Cohen: Sweet Breath of Memory was written quite late at night – the only time the house was quite. Sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and my laptop, I’d push the day’s worries to a corner of my mind and let my characters step from the shadows. It wasn’t the ideal creative environment, but it worked. My schedule is more flexible now so I’m often able to write during the day. My advice to anyone traveling this road would be to write whenever you can – even 10 or 15 minutes a day if that’s all you can manage.
twogalsandabook: What advice would you give to new authors in regards to doing research for a book? Any advice for the same newbies about getting published?
Ariella Cohen: Do your own research and use nonconventional sources and methods. In researching my new novel, I haven’t used the Internet at all. It’s been more time consuming but has allowed me to paint a picture of Famine-era Ireland readers won’t find elsewhere.
With respect to being published, I worked without an agent as I’m an attorney but if you can find a literary agent to champion your work, that’s great. You can connect with a publisher on your own but it takes a lot longer and it’s hard work. Remember that every minute you’re negotiating, you’re not writing. The final bit of advice I’d offer is to edit, edit, edit. When you think your manuscript is ready, it’s not. I know how it feels to hear that, but it’s true. Publishers will be brutal with their edits; be prepared for that by putting the best writing you can in their hands. Hire a proofreader or copy editor if you need to; it’s worth it. I didn’t and I wish I had.
twogalsandabook: Was much research necessary to write “Sweet Breath of Memory”?
Ariella Cohen: I knew quite a bit about the Holocaust but not the Lodz Ghetto, so the character Miriam Rosen’s background required a good bit of research. I’d wanted to write about Lodz for some time because most Americans know a bit about Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto but not Lodz which operated for 5 years as a slave labor camp. The Lodz Ghetto was a huge money maker for the Reich – one of the reasons it was still operating, albeit in a nominal way – when the Soviets took Lodz. The challenge of using the Holocaust as a backdrop was to do the subject matter justice while crafting a narrative that was accessible for a broad audience. I tried to highlight details about that time that, perhaps, the average reader wouldn’t have been exposed to.
twogalsandabook: What inspired you to write “Sweet Breath of Memory”?
Ariella Cohen: A few things…
First, I wanted to create the sort of small town we all want to visit – somewhere filled with people we wish were our friends, confronting challenges we hope we could, in a place that feels like home. I didn’t want Amberley to be ripped from the headlines (fiction isn’t journalism) any more than I wanted to write a story that was thinly veiled memoir, as so much first fiction tends to be.
Second, I read a lot of women’s fiction where the protagonists fall to bits when death shreds their lives, but the truth is that most of us DON’T fall apart even after losing the people we love most. We may huddle for a time, sobbing and broken, but then reality knocks. We feel hungry, the dog wants a walk, and the children start crying. So we get up and do the things that need doing. Some days it’s a matter of two steps forward, one step back. Others, we’re virtual zombies. But we keep moving forward; we’re animals, after all, bred for survival. Although a source of pride, sometimes this rebuilding rests on a foundation of guilt for we question whether moving on means our love was somehow flawed. How can we keep living after the death of a loved one? How can the world keep spinning and birds keep chirping? The novel explores these questions by celebrating women like the protagonist, Cate, and other women who mother, marry and mourn America’s warriors. Their lives are turned upside down when their men go to war and either don’t come back, or come back changed. But just as soldiers thrive in a community of brothers-in-arms, on the home front – in Amberley – there’s an incredible sense of sisters-in-arms.
Cate comes to see that women like herself are the silent casualties of war much as my mother was. Mom worked in a War Plant during WWII – the only woman there qualified to test radio crystals. Like so many sisters-in-arms, she stepped back in line and buried her story when the men came home. Growing up, I knew the basics of my mother’s war work. But not until years later did she share the details – how she was responsible for testing radio crystals and was the only woman in her plant qualified for that work. Mom didn’t share those details easily or brag about the award she received from the War Department. She didn’t feel her story was special. My hope is that wives, mothers, daughters and girlfriends affected by war share their stories with friends, family, and the men in their lives. These stories are being lost to society and to women themselves as they age.
Narrative has the power not only to illuminate but to heal. The stories we tell each other, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we tell God – all of it has the power to heal – both ourselves and this broken world. Healing the broken world – the concept of tikkun ha olam in Judaism – is the novel’s throughline. Each of the characters is in some way broken and they struggle to affect a healing of themselves, their families and their communities. I wanted to explore that concept.
twogalsandabook: What was the hardest part about writing “Sweet Breath of Memory”?
Ariella Cohen: Balancing the story of Holocaust survivor Miriam with that of other characters. We meet Miriam only through the memories of her friends and through her own writing. By the time Cate arrives in Amberley, Miriam has gone to her reward but Cate comes to know about her, to respect and emulate her. The challenge was to weave enough of Miriam’s history through the story to make her a fully fleshed out character but not so much that it was overwhelming. As a reader, I’m sensitive to writers who assume I either know nothing or more than I do. It’s frustrating when something is simplified to the point of absurdity. Similarly, it’s infuriating when writers assume their readers have more than high school familiarity with French or Latin.
twogalsandabook: Did you ever hit a snag while writing the book?
Ariella Cohen: Not really.
twogalsandabook: How long did “Sweet Breath of Memory” take to develop from conception until completion?
Ariella Cohen: It took a number of years as I was a full-time caregiver at the time. It was a balancing act to intertwine so many stories and personalities and I tried a number of approaches before I found my way. As with every craft, practice is the key. I write a lot more quickly now!
twogalsandabook: Was there anything that you had originally wanted in the book but ended up leaving out?
Ariella Cohen: More background on the characters. And there were a few characters who didn’t make the ‘cut’ but they are waiting to make an appearance in the sequel.
twogalsandabook: If you could be any of the characters in “Sweet Breath of Memory”, who would it be?
Ariella Cohen: That depends on how I’m feeling. Today, I identify with the protagonist Cate, an Iraq war widow who views small town Amberley as a clean page on which to rewrite her life. Remake herself. In the way of things, she becomes a catalyst for change, stirring the pot by shining a light on Amberley’s past as she moves toward such an uncertain future.
twogalsandabook: Who do you feel left the journal entries for Cate to find?
Ariella Cohen: Well, I know who left them but can’t say…I will share that that person had a very good reason for passing on the responsibility of safeguarding such a unique chronicle. Perhaps we’ll discover a bit more in a follow-up novel.
twogalsandabook: It appears that Cate’s book, “The Tapestry of War” mirrors “Sweet Breath of Memory” in several ways… would you care to discuss the parallels between them, both obvious and hidden?
Ariella Cohen: The book within a book device is common; in this instance, it was a way for Cate to confront her widowhood at arms-length, so to speak. As she collects other women’s stories and attempts to do them justice, she confronts her own demons. She finds her mental footing gradually, taking strength and inspiration from the stories of other women. And since she associates her literary dreams with losing her husband, embracing the writing craft again was essential to her healing.
twogalsandabook: In the book, several religions are discussed. Would you care to share about your own beliefs?
Ariella Cohen: I’m Jewish but attended Catholic primary school as it was the best in our town. Given that training, priests and nuns tend to find their way into most of my novels and the Father Sullivan character was easy to write. Although issues of faith weave their way through the book, I didn’t want it to be about religion per se. Since the protagonist, Cate, is estranged from the Church, she connections with Fr. Sullivan much as Miriam did half a century before – as a friend. His role is to draw Cate out of the box she’s built for herself – the four walls being: widow, failed writer, friendless loner, and reluctant caregiver. Inspired by the advice offered on the plaque outside his office – Life is fragile, Handle with prayer – he counsels, prods and encourages her to rebuild her life.
twogalsandabook: As you say in your book, people that go off to war come back changed. Do you feel that war is a crucible or is it fundamentally transformative?
Ariella Cohen: The former. I believe all crises serve to burn away what’s extraneous and reveal people, nations, institutions, etc. for what they are. That said, I also believe that if one is under extreme pressure or in a horrific situation, a flash of aberrant behavior is understandable. That doesn’t mean that one’s personality is fundamentally altered, though, unless the seeds of that change had been sowed long before.
twogalsandabook: In retrospect, do you think WWII or the Gulf Wars could have been prevented? Why or why not?
Ariella Cohen: I think WWII can’t be compared to subsequent wars. The scope of that conflict, what was at stake, the way America came into her own, argues against it. The world was truly at a tipping point. My Mom used to say that everyone she knew was convinced the Allies would win. With hindsight, the outcome seems far less certain. So many ‘ifs’. If the RAF hadn’t rallied, if the Norwegian heavy water plant hadn’t been sabotaged, if Enigma hadn’t been cracked, if Stalingrad had fallen…if, if, if. Could the war have been prevented? Not that I can see. The Gulf Wars were something else entirely.
twogalsandabook: What do you feel are the biggest challenges that face military wives? Do you feel that there are any struggles military widows face that are unique only to them?
Ariella Cohen: I think that following orders, whether one is male or female, is a challenge. It’s doubly hard to embrace military structure when it’s a loved one in harm’s way. Military spouses confront the same challenges as other spouses but with the added stress of having to cede decision-making authority to a 3rd party.
twogalsandabook: Are there any books, other than your own, that you would recommend to readers interested in understanding how war has affected wives and the families of soldiers?
Ariella Cohen: That’s a great question that deserves a great answer. At the time I wrote Sweet Breath of Memory, I didn’t find novels that tackled this subject the way I wanted to. That doesn’t mean those books don’t exist; I’m sure they do!
twogalsandabook: With more than 130 different tasty- sounding recipes mentioned throughout the book (yes, Daisy counted them and made a list), have you considered writing a companion cookbook to go with “Sweet Breath of Memory”?
Ariella Cohen: Really? 130? Yikes!
A cookbook is an awesome idea. Of course, we’d have to test out the recipes – repeatedly!
twogalsandabook: Do you, yourself, enjoying cooking and baking?
Ariella Cohen: I do. My Mom was a wonder in the kitchen as most mothers are. My sister made one-of-a-kind filled chocolates; she had a mold for every occasion. I’m better with baked goods – cheesecakes, cookies, and muffins.
twogalsandabook: So many foods in the book really caught our eye, but three really sounded intriguing: Pistachio Cannoli (pg 174), Grilled Eggplant Lasagna (pg 154), and the Biscotti (pg. 90). Are these based off of real recipes you have and if so, could you share any? (fingers crossed).
Ariella Cohen: How about Sheila’s almond crescents? These are super easy to make so long as you have real almond paste, not marzipan. Some recipes you’ll find call for flour, butter, confectioner’s sugar, or chocolate icing but the Italian version is a simple trinity.
Combine 1 10-ounce can almond paste with ¾ cup white sugar and 1 egg. Roll each ball of dough between your hands and then shape into a crescent. Dot with sliced almonds and bake 15-18 minutes (less if you don’t want them brown) at 375 degrees F on parchment paper. That’s it! These cookies keep for days…if they last that long.
twogalsandabook: Have you written any other books? If so, would you care to share about them?
Ariella Cohen: I wrote a few early novels that are best left on my hard drive! Some short fiction was published, both in print and e-book, and I’d recommend short story writing to anyone contemplating a novel. It’s a good way to get your feet wet and publication turnaround times are short.
twogalsandabook: Are you working on anything now? Can we expect to see anything in the near future?
Ariella Cohen: I’m working on a Young Adult novel set partly in Famine-era Ireland and partly in modern-day Maine. I’ve set up a companion blog for it at: https://ariellaabruzzi.wordpress.com/
This project has entailed a LOT of research.
I’m also working on an historical series set against the backdrop of Yorkist London’s merchant guilds. I’m a member of the UK’s Richard III Society and this project’s been in research mode for years.
twogalsandabook: Has a trailer been made for “Sweet Breath of Memory”?
Ariella Cohen: Not yet!
twogalsandabook: Have you considered trying your hand at poetry? (You see quite eloquent and skilled with words and imagery!)
Ariella Cohen: I wrote some poetry when I was younger but it probably wasn’t that good. I think poetry, like humor, is some of the toughest stuff to write!
twogalsandabook: If you were to write an autobiography, what would you call it?
Ariella Cohen: Humm, probably, “Loyalty Binds Me”. A nod to Richard III and it pretty much sums up my life thus far.
twogalsandabook: If “Sweet Breath of Memory” were made into a t.v. series or movie, who can you imagine as playing the main characters?
Ariella Cohen: How about…
Protagonist Cate – Drew Barrymore or Emily Blunt;
Father Sullivan – Alan Alda;
Town matriarch Beatrice – Helen Mirren;
Italian grocery owner Sheila – Sandra Bullock
Diner owner Gaby – Cate Blanchett
Motorcycle riding mechanic MaryLou – Katey Sagal
twogalsandabook: Are there any social media platforms where readers could connect with you?
Ariella Cohen: I tend to only keep up with Twitter.
twogalsandabook: Is there anything else you’d like to share that we have not discussed?
Ariella Cohen: A word about the title. I stole it. From an Anne Bronte poem, actually. But it captures the transient nature of memory so perfectly. In the novel, Cate struggles to keep the life she lost in the forefront of her mind. Although it’s been only two years since the death of her husband, some memories remained as crisp as a new apple, others seemed as fragile as a moth’s wing – as fleeting as frost on a windowpane. The mutable quality of memory takes Cate by surprise and she concludes that if memories of her beloved dim with each dawn, she is somehow to blame. Her love must be flawed or her commitment lacking.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
What and how we remember isn’t a choice; if it were, we would mentally delete horrible experiences and underscore pleasant ones. We would sort the past, preserving some bits in a treasure box and shredding others. But such editing is impossible because memories answer only to themselves. Some are as fluid as water; the harder we try to grasp them, the more they seem to slip away. Others distort with perspective or become sepia-toned, abrading with age but not in the traditional sense. My Mom used to say that memories don’t respect the quarter turn of Nature’s seasons because their frosts and thaws can’t be predicted. That’s true, for the one constant is how often unbidden memories push forward, claiming center stage one day only to wait in the wings the next. And yet–
Memories define us; if they’re changeable, then so is identity. Cate acknowledges this cruel fact when she realizes that the married woman she was is lost to her forever. She will never be that Cate again, and every step she takes toward remaking herself carries her away from the woman her husband loved. The life they shared. The children she might have had.
I chose to have Cate confront the nature of memory because I think many of us react as she does when we forget – whether it’s an upcoming birthday or something truly treasured. But why are we so hard on ourselves? Our mind’s filing system is a mystery and if the attic of our thoughts becomes a jumble, we’re not to blame. An experience may be spotlighted one day only to be cast into the shadows the next. It is a process beyond our control; beyond understanding. And yet even tattered memories are armor. Initially so shiny they dazzle, in time they acquire the patina of use but are no less a shield against loneliness and despair. Cate comes to understand this and celebrate what memories are left her. In the act of piecing them together, like the remnant woman she is, she begins to forgive herself. And comes to realize that we honor the dead not just by remembering but by rebuilding. In this way, she follows in the footsteps of Miriam half a century before.
twogalsandabook: To wrap things up, just for fun:
What is your favorite color?
Ariella Cohen: Blue – strongest color in Judaism
Ariella Cohen: Italian, although vegetarian
twogalsandabook: Vacation destination?
Ariella Cohen: Ireland
twogalsandabook: Fictional character?
Ariella Cohen: Rev. Septimus Harding (The Warden)
twogalsandabook: What one super power would you like most to have?
Ariella Cohen: Invisibility
Twogalsandabook would like to thank Ariella Cohen for the honor of reading her book, Sweet Breath Of Memory, allowing us to interview her, and generously offering her book for giveaway here on the blog! It has been a pleasure! : )
Win 1 of 3 copies of Sweet Breath of Memory by Ariella Cohen!
SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY is “…a heartwarming story of survival, forgiveness, and moving on.” – Booklist. The novel is available in trade paperback, ebook and Large Print hardcover.
Ariella believes in the healing power of cat purrs, coffee, Vivaldi and almond cookies. During the last summer Olympics, she felt compelled to run into the garden and prove she’s still a gymnast. It wasn’t pretty.
Ariella lives in New England but her dream self resides in County Mayo, Ireland. She graduated with honors from Barnard College, Columbia University, and attended the Hebrew University as a Visiting Scholar. Her three years in Jerusalem were magical. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, she somehow passed the NY & NJ bars.
Other books by Ariella Cohen: