Review: Don’t Breathe a Word by Holly Cupala


Title: Don’t Breathe a Word

Author: Holly Cupala

Publisher: Harper Teen

ISBN: 978-0061766695


May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Joy Delamere is suffocating.

From asthma, from her parents, and from her boyfriend, Asher, who is smothering her from the inside out. She can take his cruel words, his tender words . . . until the night they go too far.

To escape, Joy sacrifices her suburban life to find the one who offered his help, a homeless boy called Creed. He introduces her to a world of fierce loyalty, to its rules of survival, and to love—a world she won’t easily let go.

Set against the backdrop of the streets of Seattle, Holly Cupala’s power­ful new novel explores the subtleties of abuse, the secrets we keep, and the ways to redemption. But above all, it is an unflinching story about the extraordinary lengths one girl will go to discover her own strength.


If I hadn’t received a review copy of Don’t Breathe a Word, it probably would have never even been a blip on my radar, and that would have been too bad, because it is a compellingly readable title.  I did have to engage a heavy suspension of disbelief during my time with Joy, because some of the plot elements did not work for me, and seemed highly unlikely. 

Joy has been suffering from debilitating asthma her entire life.  She has been in and out of the hospital after severe reactions and bouts with pneumonia.  Several times during her short life, she has been inches away from death.  Only the quick reactions of her caretakers and the emergency staff at the hospital have saved her life.  Fearful that any mold or dust might cause an immediate and unfortunate reaction, her mother keeps their house spotless.  Joy’s older brother is assigned to take care of her, to make sure that she is sheltered from an allergic reaction to anything.  Joy is smothered and unhappy, but her parents won’t take any chances with her health.

When she meets handsome, wealthy Asher, she thinks her life is going to change for the better.  Her parents approve of him, and soon, Asher is given the responsibility of caring for Joy. Of keeping her safe.  Only with Asher, Joy is imprisoned in a different kind of cage. Asher is possessive and has an explosive temper, and soon Joy is willing to do anything to keep him happy.  As her friendships slide and Asher becomes her world, Joy feels a different kind of fear.  When his abuse turns from verbal to physical, she is terrified.  Desperate, she fakes her kidnapping and heads to Seattle, to hide from Asher among the homeless population.

The premise is compelling and instantly had me hooked.  How would I survive if I was homeless?  I kept wondering if I would get along as well as Joy, as she meets danger at every turn.  She has to find food for herself, a safe haven to sleep, and clothes for the upcoming winter.  The trials she faces on the streets are perilous and frightening.  There are scary people willing to take advantage of her and worse, do her physical harm.  Her frail health is also a concern.  What happens when she runs out of her inhalers?  How will she survive a bout of sickness or a severe asthma attack on her own?

There were two elements of the story that didn’t work for me, the biggest being Joy’s precarious health.  She is forced to weather the harsh elements, and later,  hides out in a moldy, musty house.  I had a hard time buying into her ability to keep herself from tumbling into an abyss of illness.  She is forced to live with everything that pushes her lungs into an asthmatic attack, and yet she is spared from the severe allergic reactions that have shaped the life she was so desperate to escape from.  It was difficult for me to accept that her health was so poor, or that one of the homeless teens she met would be able to procure a supply of her medication.  Suffering from acute allergies myself, I know that this situation would have left me ill and in need of emergency medical care, so I found it jarring that Joy managed to keep her asthma, which is much, much worse than mine, under control, under such trying conditions.

The other sticky point for me were Joy’s sudden feelings for Creed.  As the narrative unfolded, Joy’s life on the streets became more about her desire to be with Creed, and less about her need to be safe from Asher’s abuse.   She is in extreme danger, from the elements, from poor hygiene, from criminals on the streets who would do her harm, be it rape her or kill her or both, and she is fascinated by a guy she has just met.  This plot point did not sit well with me.  This is the reason she ran away in the first place; to get away from her old boyfriend, who dictated every move she made.  Now that she has met Creed, she puts 100% of her trust in him, right away, without knowing if he is worthy of her trust.

These two plot points aside, Don’t Breathe a Word is an engaging read.  I could not put it down.  The first half of the story is tense and scary, as Joy tries to meld into the local homeless community.  The pacing for last half was a bit off, as Joy attempts to fit in with her new homeless “family.”  It is obvious that she doesn’t belong there, and that her circumstances are not as dire as those of her new friends.  It’s almost like she was on a very crappy vacation.  Her new friends, however,  have no home to go back to, and they are veterans of the streets.  With her background, she is only passing through, and everyone else knows this but Joy.  This little niggling fact made her journey not quite as dire, and destroyed some of the suspense as Joy attempts to learn the ropes in her new, albeit, temporary, world.

Grade: B

Review copy provided by publisher


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