Reading: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing LessonsBreathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Some semi-spoilers here – maybe ignore the quoted passages]

We see the lives of Maggie and Ira Moran through the microscope of a day of travel. They start the day going to the funeral of Maggie’s best friend’s husband; later, they stop by the house of their ex-daughter-in-law where Maggie tries to reconnect Fiona with her son Jesse.

Ira is quiet and practical: “He ought to have married Ann Landers, she thought… If he had married Ann Landers he’d have just the kind of hard-nosed, sensible wife he wanted. Sometimes, hearing his grunt of approval as he read one of Ann’s snappy answers, Maggie felt an actual pang of jealousy.” [p 32]. Maggie is a dreamer and an exaggerator: “And his wife! He loved her, but he couldn’t stand how she refused to taker her own life seriously. She seemed to believe it was a sort of practice life, something she could afford to play around with as if they offered second and third chances to get it right. She was always making clumsy, impetuous ruses toward nowhere in particular – side trips, random detours.” [p 126]

Although they see the world differently and remember different aspects of their history together they love one another. Maggie will do most anything to (re-)connect people she loves – because she sees the inner person. But those other people may just take what she says as the factual truth. “‘Shut up, Maggie. She had no business telling you that,’ Ira said to Fiona. ‘It’s Maggie’s weakness: She believes it’s all right to alter people’s lives. She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them.'” [p 266]

The breakup of their son and his wife affects them both although Ira won’t say so. “Her fingers felt the answer first. He was just as sad as Maggie was, and for just the same reasons. He was lonely and tired and lacking in hope and his son had not turned out well and his daughter didn’t think much of him, and he still couldn’t figure where he had gone wrong.” [p 277]

Although I didn’t connect with this novel like the experts (it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1989] I can see its qualities. Anne Tyler does a very good job in showing four lives through the microscope of a single day; we see the repeating rhythms and patterns (for example fender benders) through remembrance and extended interior monologues. It’s lovely to see how Ira and Maggie move forward together together despite their differences. If you are considering reading this, don’t let my 3 stars dissuade you – the Pulitzer Prize folks know their business.

Apropos of nothing, I found it interesting to read this so soon after reading The Corrections; that novel tells the story of aging parents mostly from the viewpoint of the adult children. This novel tells the story of a son and daughter-in-law from the perspective of the parents.

View all my reviews

I gave myself a stretch goal of reading 24 books this year. Breathing Lessons was number 18 so I only need to read 6 more in the next four months. Although I’ve loved my reading this year, I think a goal of 24 books is a little high because the reading pulls me away from so many other things I love to do: cook, travel, take photographs, learn about photography. Of the six remaining books this year, my current list is

  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction
  • A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem. It will be released on October 18. I enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn (4 stars) and Fortress of Solitude (3 stars).
  • A William Faulkner novel to be determined. It was on my original goal list for the year.
  • Finish the book I am reading about my Sony A7Rii camera.

That leaves two slots; if you’ve seen some of my reviews please leave a comment with a suggestion.

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