The setting of New Mexico’s high desert is unfamiliar territory for Oates (most of her major novels are set in upstate New York, in New Jersey, Detroit and the like), but no less vivid on the page than her usual settings. As always in Oatesworld, the location is inextricably tied to story; the jagged desert escarpments, the “breathless” high altitude, and a pantheon of Pueblo gods haunt the protagonist, Michaela, as she prays/wills her ailing husband’s convalescence.
It is not a spoiler to say that her husband, Gerard, succumbs to cancer and pneumonia, because the focus of the story is Michaela. Oates renders Michaela’s confused sublimation into widowhood in the hallucinatory, dreamlike prose that has become a hallmark of her career. Marriage is once again a centerpiece of the novel, and it’s a topic Oates has plumbed extensively. One could select from her vast oeuvre any number of stories/books where a spouse, often a woman but not always, tumbles into a chaotic, self-imposed or self-destructive delirium, at the marital or physical loss/separation of the other spouse (an example of a male protagonist that comes to mind is Jerome “Corky” Corcoran in WHAT I LIVED FOR).
Michaela is reminiscent of Ileana from the early story “The Dead,” a takeoff on James Joyce’s story of the same name and collected in Oates’s MARRIAGES AND INFIDELTIES (1972), a woman under totally different circumstances than Michaela in BREATHE but nonetheless caught in a pressure cooker that leaves her somersaulting through hellacious, personal grief and loss and romance.
Michaela suffers through this interior torment, which is counterbalanced by the processual functions of widowhood she must undertake, from the disposition of cremains to the task of finishing Gerard’s last manuscript. Some of this territory is familiar to readers of Oates's searing memoir, A WIDOW'S STORY, about her marriage to Raymond Smith and, especially, the aftermath of his (rather sudden) death. If there is autobiography to be found in Gerard, though, it is not Smith but Charlie Gross, Oates's second husband and the renowned father of cognitive neuroscience.
As in her story “The Dead,” Oates employs a number of devices in her narrative style that simulate the protagonist's psychological unbalancing: shifts between second- and third-person points-of-view, elliptical and rhetorically repetitive prose, and so on. This style can be irritating to the reader (as is Oates’s obsessive employment of italicized prose), but it is ultimately effective in creating an indelible literary experience that is at once utterly original and frighteningly familiar.