Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler

Some members of our group found the main character of this book, Maggie Moran, irritating. Others found her endearing. Sort of like real life. And that’s the beauty of Anne Tyler’s novels: They are about the lives we actually live—the mundane, the everyday, the irritating, and the endearing.  

I have loved the Maggie character since I first met her when the book came out in 1989. I loved her as played by Joanna Woodward in the Breathing Lessons movie in 1994. And I loved her when I reread this book in 2016.

Yes, Maggie and other characters in Tyler’s books skew toward odd duck territory, but as I lose myself in their stories, I begin thinking they have more of a handle on things than I do.

And then there’s Ira, Maggie’s husband. Some members of our group thought he was a long-suffering saint for putting up with Maggie. I found him passive aggressive and judgy in 1989 and even more so in 2016. His saving grace was that he was played as kind and compassionate by James Garner in the movie, so obviously Garner—and my feller BBBers—saw something I didn\’t.

Breathing Lessons was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1989, was a finalist for the 1988 National Book Award, and was Time Magazine’s Book of the Year. Two previous books by Anne Tyler were Pulitzer finalists: The Accidental Tourist in 1986 and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in 1983.

Like most Tyler novels, Breathing Lessons is character-driven. It’s one day in the lives of Maggie and Ira, who drive to the funeral of Maggie’s best friend’s husband, and then stop to visit their granddaughter, Leroy (pronounced LA roy), who lives with her mother, Fiona, Maggie and Ira’s former daughter-in-law.

It’s one bizarre day, including some laugh-out-loud moments at the funeral, during which friends are asked to sing the love songs they first sung at the dead man’s marriage 28 years ago. Maggie barely remembers the words so she and a friend work out the verses on a coupon Maggie has in her purse. The friend gives the coupon back and, later, Maggie tries to use it when buying groceries, but the clerk reads the love-struck lyrics and, with a red face, hands it back, mortified. There\’s a hilariously clumsy sex scene, a visit with a waitress at a roadside diner who quickly becomes Maggie\’s friend, and a vignette with Otis, a man who Maggie and Ira help with a tire problem. But Maggie made up the tire issue to goad Otis because he was driving too slowly, but then she realized he was a sweet and somewhat brittle old man, so she made Ira stop and the tried to help him and ultimately drove him home, and…. Anyway, you get the point about Anne Tyler\’s characters and the worlds they inhabit.

Through flashbacks and dialogue, we learn about Maggie and Ira’s unlikely and unpromising courtship and Fiona’s marriage to the their son, Jessie, a classic screw-up—just ask his dad. We see Fiona and Maggie bond through childbirth classes, complete with breathing lessons, and we see the young marriage dissolve through immaturity and a series of miscommunications, with all characters playing pivotal roles in the chaos. And we see Fiona flee the family—and the city—multiple times, to try to make some sort of sensible life for herself and her daughter.

This is the story of a marriage, of how people change when they become a couple, about the sacrifices they make for one another and the mixed blessings those sacrifices bring.

Learning how to navigate a marriage, Tyler implies in her title, is like learning to breathe, and every day is a lesson. —Pat Prijatel

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