Breathing Underwater


Readability Age Range



Year Published

Book Review

This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine

This contemporary novel written by Alex Flinn is published by Harper Collins Publishers and is written for kids ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Sixteen-year-old Nicholas Andreas is called before a judge after his girlfriend, Caitlyn, seeks a restraining order against him. She claims that Nick beat her, but he insists he only slapped her once when she provoked him during an argument. The judge grants Caitlyn’s request and orders Nick to attend counseling for anger management. He must also write 500 words a week in a journal about his relationship with Caitlyn.

Nick begins the journal with the story of how he met Caitlyn. He and his best friend, Tom, spotted her walking into school at the beginning of their sophomore year. Nick thought she was a new girl. Tom explained that they’d known her since kindergarten, but she’d lost weight over the summer. Although Nick was one of the popular kids in school, he had no self-confidence and was afraid to talk to Caitlyn.

After writing this entry, Nick begins the Family Violence class. The instructor, Mario, demands honesty, punctuality and courtesy from the students. If they fail to meet his requirements, they can be ordered to take the class again or be put in jail. Mario’s biggest rule is that the participants take responsibility for their actions and not blame their girlfriends, alcohol or drugs for their behavior. One of the students breaks down, confessing he doesn’t know how to be honest and reveal the pain he hides inside. Nick also tries to block out a scene starting to play in his mind. He’s afraid he might break down as well. When Mario confronts Nick about why he has to take the class, Nick admits that he slapped Caitlyn because they were arguing. He tells Mario that his life has been ruined because of this misunderstanding. No one in school will speak to him, including Tom, his best friend since kindergarten.

Later, Nick writes in his journal about how Tom set him up with Caitlyn. She agreed to go to a classmate’s party with him that weekend. Nick alludes to being jealous of Tom’s relationship with his parents; Nick’s relationship with his own father is strained. In fact, Nick’s father sells Nick’s car without telling him, even though it had been given to him as a birthday present.

At school, Nick is treated like a pariah. Former friends circle around Caitlyn any time he happens to pass her in the hall. Others write disparaging remarks about him on the blackboard, trying to provoke his anger. Instead, Nick uses his journal to reflect on his relationship with Caitlyn. He reminisces about their first date. When uninvited thugs crashed the party they attended and started trashing the house, Caitlyn spoke up to make them stop. One of the boys made a lewd comment and touched her waist, sending Nick into a frenzied rage. He pummeled the boy until Tom pulled him away. Caitlyn rewarded Nick with a kiss for defending her honor. When one of her friend’s irritated Nick, he demanded that Caitlyn no longer hang out with her. After a brief argument, Caitlyn agreed.

When the subject comes up in the Family Violence class, Mario tries to help the students see that isolating a girlfriend from her family and friends is an example of a controlling behavior that he hopes to teach them to overcome. Mario also informs them that at the next class, they will be talking about their relationships with their parents. Nick senses the others have the same fears he does about this subject. He writes in his journal about how his father punched him in the face when he discovered Nick had tricked the maid into buying him beer for a party. He had to stay home from school the next day so no one would see the bruise. He phoned Caitlyn to tell her he was sick and then argued with her when she wanted to stop by his house. He also became irate when she didn’t immediately agree to stay home from the football game that night, calling her foul names. They made up when she agreed to stay home. The following day Caitlyn insisted on visiting him, pushing past the maid and pounding on Nick’s door until he let her in. She realized his dad beat him and tried to convince Nick to tell a teacher or the police. Nick refused the advice but accepted her gentle hugs. He confessed he loved her, and she told him the same.

Nick disobeys the court order by calling Caitlyn and hanging up without speaking. He also conspires to meet with her in the halls at school. When he catches her alone one day, he tries to make her remember how good they were together and asks her to drop the charges against him. When she hesitates, his temper rises, and he tells her he never loved her. She is able to face him down at that moment and thank him for reminding her why she can’t be with him.

In Family Violence class, Nick manages to avoid the subject of his father’s abuse, telling the group that he and his father get along fine. They had been together, just the two of them, since his mother left when he was 5. Others in the group describe childhoods embroiled with psychological and physical abuse. Nick makes friends with Leo, one of the other members of the class. Leo eventually convinces his girlfriend, Neysa, to drop the assault charges against him and take him back so he doesn’t have to attend the group anymore.

Nick continues to write about his relationship in his journal, admitting to himself how he manipulated Caitlyn by calling her fat or threatening to break up with her if she did anything he didn’t like. He psychologically controlled her, demanding she do only the things he gave her permission to do. But he could also be kind to her, such as when he rescued her from an initiation that turned mean.

Although Leo no longer has to attend Family Violence class, he and Nick hang out together. Leo gets Nick to admit that his dad sometimes hits him. Leo shows Nick a gun he keeps to threaten his mother’s boyfriend. The man psychologically abused Leo, his mother and his brother.

The incident scares Nick, and he writes his thoughts in his journal, trying to work out if he could ever be as violent as Leo. He realizes his abuse of Caitlyn escalated when they went on a trip with friends to Key West. She tried to confront him about his behavior on the drive home, and he became blinded with rage, threatening to drive their car off a bridge and into the water. When she grabbed the wheel to straighten out the car, he hit her in the face. After that weekend, Caitlyn tried to break up with him, but Nick convinced her to give him another chance.

A couple of Nick’s old friends pull him aside in the hallway and hit him, telling him to stay away from Caitlyn. His English teacher sees the bruises and questions Nick. She’s noticed his absences and bruises before, but Nick won’t admit to his father’s abuse. She tells him not to consider himself a bad person because of what he did to Caitlyn, intimating that she knows he has issues he needs to deal with and that, being only 16, he has time to redeem himself.

At counseling, Mario pushes Nick into admitting the emotions he felt before he hit Caitlyn. When Nick shuts down, Mario goads him into getting angry, even telling Nick to hit him. Nick gets mad, but still won’t hit Mario. The counselor explains that Nick has to behave in a similar way around women. Instead of thinking he can bully his girlfriend into behaving, or beating her when he’s angry with her, Nick has to learn to walk away from the situation. That afternoon, Nick meets up with Leo and Neysa to work at a carnival for school service hours. The three work the concession stand together. Nick gets an uncomfortable look in the proverbial mirror as he watches Leo psychologically abuse Neysa during the afternoon. When the night is over, Nick makes plans to stay away from Leo.

During the next Family Violence class, Mario paces the room and reacts with a short fuse when students question him. Nick can see Mario is upset about something but won’t tell the class about it. His receptionist comes in and whispers something about Leo and the newspapers. Mario leaves the class, telling them to read their workbooks. At the end of class time, the rest of the students leave, but Nick stays behind. Mario returns and explains that Leo killed himself and Neysa. The news devastates Nick. He races home, trying to deal with the emotions swirling inside him. He takes out his journal and writes about his last fight with Caitlyn. She’d gone against his wishes and performed in the school talent show. He was so insecure that he thought she sang the love song to someone else in the audience, not him. Enraged, he dragged her to the parking lot and began beating her until Tom finally broke them apart and hit Nick in the jaw.

Reliving his abuse of Caitlyn in light of Leo’s tragedy starts Nick on the road to real recovery. On their last day of class together, Mario admits that he was once an abuser. He beat his wife to drown out the voice of his father telling him he was a loser. When he pushed her out of a moving car, he was forced to attend the same class. He repeated the class until the lessons stuck and he learned how to drown out his father’s negative voice in his head. Nick tells Mario that he’s learned that being a man isn’t about having the most power, but in taking responsibility for your actions and doing the right thing even when no one is looking. When the session is over, Nick asks if he can take the class again. Mario agrees. Nick also leaves his journal for Mario to read. That night, when his father tries to hit him, Nick stands up to him.

On his first day back to school for his junior year, Tom stops Nick in the parking lot. He tells Nick that Caitlyn has moved away. Before she left, she told him about how Nick had been abused by his father. Tom can’t understand why Nick never told him about it. She also told Tom that after her last phone conversation with Nick, she believes he truly has changed. Nick and Tom forgive each other — Nick for keeping secrets and Tom for shutting his friend out the year before. The school year starts on the hopeful note of their renewed friendship.

Christian Beliefs

When Nick takes the witness stand, he wonders if God is listening and if He even exists. Caitlyn admits to attending Sunday school and being in the church choir. Mario tells his students that the Family Violence class is God’s way of opening their eyes to the mess they’ve made of their lives. Nick calls Leo a Christian martyr when he lies to the police about helping nuns move furniture. When Nick’s father confronts him about having a condom, Nick thinks to him that he’s been nailed, in the biblical sense of the word, meaning crucified. Leo talks about his brother’s suicide and how a priest had prayed that his soul would be saved. Leo hoped that it wouldn’t.

Other Belief Systems

When Nick learns one of the students in the Family Violence class is named Kelly, he thanks whatever deity exists that convinced his parents not to give him a girl’s name.

Authority Roles

At first Nick’s dad is seen as psychologically abusive, calling Nick stupid and saying he always fails. Later, we learn that he is physically abusive as well, especially after he’s been drinking. When his father confronts him about owning a condom, Nick thinks he’s going to be punished. Instead his father congratulates him and pours him a glass of Scotch. Nick realizes that nothing else he’d done, such as getting good grades in school, has made his dad happy, but his having sex makes him a man in his dad’s eyes. His father warns Nick to get his girlfriend better protection so that they don’t end up making a mistake like he did. Nick knows that he is the mistake his father made. Mario becomes a role model for Nick. The instructor pushes his students to be honest about their actions and learn to overcome the motivations to abuse others. He gives Nick his business card and tells the boy to call him if he ever needs to talk. When Nick finishes the class and asks if he can take it again, Mario gives him a hug. It is the only hug he’s ever gotten from a man.

Profanity & Violence

The dialogue is laced with profanity, s—, bulls—, d–n, bi–h, bast-rd, and a– with kiss, hole and wicked. Other objectionable words used are p—ed, slut, crap, turd, butt, p—, and t-ts. God’s name is used with sake and awful. The name of Jesus with Christ is also used as an exclamation.

Nick’s dad punches him in the face for getting the maid to buy him beer. Nick alludes to other beatings in his journal. Caitlyn’s new boyfriend punches Nick to convince him to keep away from her. The other students in the Family Violence class talk about their fathers’ psychological abuse and/or the fact that they were quick to exact physical punishment. Leo relates how his stepfather pitted him against his twin brother. If his twin did anything wrong, Leo had to hit him. The stepfather often made the brothers fight each other until Leo finally stopped talking to his brother altogether. His brother committed suicide. Through his journal, Nick admits to his psychological abuse of Caitlyn. He also describes in detail the rage that overtook him on several occasions when he thought she’d betrayed him. He writes about hitting her repeatedly as she begged him to stop. Mario describes how he beat his pregnant wife and threw her out of a moving car, killing the child. When Nick’s father kicks Nick’s feet off the coffee table and spills a can of soda, he insists Nick clean it up. Nick refuses because he didn’t make the mess. When his father lifts his hand to strike him, Nick stops him, grabbing both his father’s hands and insisting that he won’t be hit again. His father backs down. Later that week, his father gives Nick the keys to a new car and confesses that perhaps he’s been too hard on Nick over the years, but that’s how he was raised. Nick realizes that his dad’s story about leaving home when he was 16 was probably because he, too, had been abused.

Sexual Content

Caitlyn testifies to the court that she and Nick had consensual sex. Tom jokes that Nick is the only guy he knows that dreams of dying a virgin. Nick says that people naturally have to stare at a woman with a large chest. One of the group members says the reason he has to take the class is because his girlfriend’s parents are mad that he took their daughter’s virginity. A classmate in school tries to sidetrack the Spanish teacher by talking about topless beaches in Europe. He wonders how the men avoid showing they’re excited when they all wear tiny Speedo bathing suits. In an effort to sound cool to the others in the Family Violence class, Nick says that if his girlfriend doesn’t like how he acts, he’ll dump her and find another; after all, they all have the same thing between their legs. Another class member tells how his mother’s boyfriend sexually abused him. Nick jokes that he’ll buy his friend a pornographic magazine. When his father finds a condom in Nick’s room, he congratulates him for becoming a man. He also gives Nick a wad of cash. He tells Nick to buy his girlfriend something special, but also get her on birth control pills because condoms aren’t the best protection. Tom confronts Nick with the fact that Nick and Caitlyn shared a bed together in Key West. Nick admits they’ve been having sex. Tom, who always has a girlfriend, admits that he’s still a virgin. When Nick is drunk with his friends in a bar, he tells Caitlyn to take off her shirt so the others can see her breasts and see what he’s been getting.

Before his first date with Caitlyn, Nick admits in his journal that he’s touched, kissed and groped a lot of girls, and they’ve done the same to him, but his first kiss with Caitlyn was something special. After an argument, Nick pressures Caitlyn to have sex with him, but she tells him she wants to take things slow. He does touch her breast, and they kiss. After a sorority initiation in which the other girls called Caitlyn fat and ugly, and told her no one really liked her, Nick convinces her to come to his house. His father isn’t home. He describes touching her intimately as he drives. It is intimated that they had sex that night.

Nick is uncomfortable with the nudity in the boys’ locker room. He wraps a towel around his waist, but Tom walks around naked. Nick jokes that Tom is feeding his secret homosexual desires.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at

Additional Comments

Alcohol: Nick tricks the maid into buying beer, which he then takes to a party. Nick’s father drinks, often too much. Nick and his friends get drunk when they are in Key West.

Drugs: Nick comments that several people smoke marijuana at a party

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