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Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing Lessons (1988)

by Anne Tyler

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Maggie Moran, a late-40s mother of two, is often the bain of her family and friends—and even herself—in Anne Tyler's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel [Breathing Lessons]. Maggie is also the bain of many would-be readers of the book; witness the number of LTers who ditched or panned the book because they can't stand Maggie. I won't say I liked her, but I followed her path of misconception, misguidance, mischief, and mayhem all the way to the end, and I am glad I did. A very fine accomplishment, Ms. Tyler. Ordinary people doing their ordinary things are worth a few hours of your time. If you invest some time, you may discover that neither the people nor the things are all that ordinary.

Here's the setup: Maggie is married to Ira, a man who had dreams of doing medical research but now runs a small picture-framing shop. Maggie wanted nothing more than to assist in a nursing home, and that's what she does. Daughter Daisy is intense, capable, but curiously estranged from family; she practically lives with a friend whose mother Maggie calls Mrs. Perfect. Son Jesse is a talent-free loser, a high-school dropout half-heartedly pursuing fame and fortune as a rock performer. He got a girl named Fiona pregnant, married her, and, less than a year after the birth of their daughter, was divorced by her.

Nothing special about the Morans (though Tyler does seem to be signaling us by giving them that name). The shop Ira runs was started by his father Sam who lives in the apartment above it with his two damaged and dependent daughters (Ira's sisters). Upon Ira's high school graduation, Sam announced that he had a heart ailment; Ira would have to take over the shop to support his father and sisters. Partly as a consequence, the author tells us, Ira was "fifty years old and had never accomplished one single act of consequence.''

For her part, Maggie's been belittled by her own mother as well as her daughter. ''How have you let things get so common?'' her mother had once demanded, oblivous to the fact that, though her father was a lawyer, her husband was a garage-door installer. Then not long ago, Daisy asked, "Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?''

The story recounts a single day in Maggie and Ira's life, devoted to a round trip from Baltimore to a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, just off Route 1. Maggie's best friend from high school is holding a memorial service for her husband, now dead from cancer. As she starts her car, the radio comes on, tuned to an AM call-in show, and she hears a familiar voice, a caller, telling the host that she first had "married for love" but would now—next weekend—be marrying "for security." Maggie "hears" Fiona admitting she still loves Jesse but that she's marrying someone else in a week. Not much time for Maggie to act!

All her life, what Maggie has wanted to do is help people, to ease friction, smooth the bumps, bring people together, help them to be just as good as she "sees" them being. ''It's Maggie's weakness," Ira explains. "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 point of view of them.''
  weird_O | Feb 3, 2016 |
Right up front, I feel the need to say I love Anne Tyler. I will read anything she publishes. But, having said that... I find my love for her novels really goes back and forth. I haven't ever strongly disliked anything she's written, but I certainly find some of her books amazing, while others settle around being just fine. And that's okay with me. Tyler does the nuance and undercurrents of marriage and family really well, and there are always moments of humour I appreciate in each of her stories.

In an interview, Tyler once said “I start every book thinking ‘This one will be different’ and it’s not. I have my limitations. I am fascinated by how families work, endurance, how do we get through life." I find these things fascinating too. When I pick up a book by Anne Tyler, I guess it's a bit like picking up a John Irving novel - you may not know the exact story going into the read, but you certainly know what to expect.

So, Breathing Lessons was a good read, but not a great read for me. I liked the concept of 'one day in the life', with flashbacks, as Maggie and Ira Moran navigate their emotional day.

The characters were very well done (save for Jesse and Daisy, to me) and I felt a bit sad for them all. Ira deferred his own dreams of medical school because of a difficult family that put him in charge of their lives, and his dad's picture framing business, when he was only 18yo. Maggie seems to have had a lot of potential in high school, but never really got or felt, I suppose, supported or encouraged - like nothing was ever good enough. Maggie, by the time we meet her, is a bit of a flustering confusion of a woman.

For both Maggie and Ira, life has been a series of disappointments and stifled goals. There are a couple of themes at work here. One is the idea of wastefulness - wasted talent, wasted energies, etc... The other concept revolves around 'ordinary life', which is somehow not okay and should be avoided. (For example: why be a nurse's aide, when you could become a nurse? A nurse's aide is not much better than a waitress, which is not much good at all.)

I think that where I am just a bit stuck is on the idea of 'to what end?' Because we are only spending one day with the Morans, I really didn't expect this to be answered as it really is only one slice of their lives. But I guess I would have enjoyed a bit more exploration - particularly of Maggie's character. Maggie was so hard on herself, critical. And she assumed things about others and how they thought of her, whether accurate or not. And she really exaggerated a lot. It's a bit like putting a puzzle together... but I am not sure all of the pieces are here. Anyway... it's interesting to contemplate this novel and the characters, imagining what becomes of them all.

This book is one being read in one of my groups as a monthly read for February, 2016. I am hoping that the discussions will be active, and I am looking forward to hearing the different perspectives and ideas others take from the read. ( )
  Booktrovert | Jan 31, 2016 |
A delightful novel that takes place in just a single day as a couple drive to and from the funeral of an old friend. Through their conversations and thoughts, and a series of flashbacks, we learn a lot about their personalities, lies and marriage. ( )
  SueinCyprus | Jan 26, 2016 |
Ira and Maggie Moran have been married 28 years despite the fact that their personalities often drive each other crazy. Maggie is a scatterbrained klutz, and Ira is as stoic and unemotional as they come. Although there are plenty of flashbacks, the action of the book takes place entirely on one Saturday while Maggie and Ira drive from Baltimore to a small town in Pennsylvania for a funeral. Spending the whole day in such close quarters means that they get on each other’s nerves multiple times, which in turn causes several unusual incidents to occur. Throughout the day, they both reflect a lot on their marriage, their children and grandchild, and what direction their lives are heading in.

I read somewhere that Anne Tyler said this was her favorite of all the books she’s written. I liked it from the beginning, but I never quite got to the point of loving it. As with all of Tyler’s books, the characters are so quirky that they’re almost not believable, but somehow, she always makes it work. Also like her other books, the story is entirely character-driven with not much plot. Once I realized that the whole novel was only going to take place in a single day, I couldn’t decide whether that was a brilliant idea or a really bad one. I think it was an interesting thing to try and it did end up working, although not as well as I would have liked it to. Even though it’s not one of my favorites, it’s still a very good book. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
Finished Breathing Lessons last night, and good riddance. I started off wanting to give it up after a page or two. The tone and characters reminded me of Olive Kitteridge which I found incredibly depressing and a slog to get through. I'm coming to the conclusion I don't much enjoy novels about modern marriage and regular daily irritations and hardships. Not sure why Fates and Furies worked for me, considering that is the case, but maybe because there was some kind of element of magic to it (which I can't put my finger on), and the switch of narrative voices was a device that worked very well in that case. I decided to stick to Breathing Lessons all the same, following Maggie and Ira to a friend's funeral where the widow expected everyone present to do a reprise of the songs they'd performed during her wedding, to everyone's consternation. Then discover just how much Maggie can't help herself meddling in people's life and making a mess of things, when she desperately tries to get her daughter-in-law back with her son, well after they've gone through a divorce because she is convinced they are still in love with one another. This despite the fact they married because Fiona had gotten pregnant at seventeen and only married Jesse, a singer in a band whom his father is convinced is a loser, because of Maggie's insistence and unabashed reliance on what seem to her to be tiny lies to convince Fiona that Jesse is serious about wanting a family with her. After a while, Anne Tyler's writing started to draw me in, despite the sinking feeling the story and characters gave me. Nothing goes right in this story, and Maggie's relationship with her husband is a bitter one, and she is constantly deluding herself she is out to do the right thing, when she seems to make things worse almost by default. Her loneliness and sense of disconnection are almost palpable. By the time I got to the last third, I started disliking the book intensely again, no matter how good the writing was. Not that I was expecting a happy ending, which wouldn't have suited the tone of the story, but it was all just so... depressing. Regular, struggling, bumbling lives getting along and being described in all their wretched sordid details. Again, beautifully written, which is the one saving grace of this book, as far as I'm concerned, but next time, I will drop any book that makes me feel this way. Life is too short and I have my own longstanding and deep relationship with melancholy to keep a handle on. Two and a half stars, because of how well it was written, but to say I *enjoyed* it would be a lie. ( )
  Smiler69 | Jan 11, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Anne Tylerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alepsiou, GeorgiaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Antmen, AhuTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Etsuko, NakanoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fedyszak, MarekTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hoffenberg, JulietteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kaiser, ReinhardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marion, DivinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Preis, AnnikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rifbjerg, IngeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roald, BodilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salvà, GemmaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Samcová, JarmilaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schenoni, LuigiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tex, Gideon denTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Villa, SaaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vinga, Sophie PenberthyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345485599, Mass Market Paperback)

Maggie Moran's mission is to connect and unite people, whether they want to be united or not. Maggie is a meddler and as she and her husband, Ira, drive 90 miles to the funeral of an old friend, Ira contemplates his wasted life and the traffic, while Maggie hatches a plant to reunite her son Jesse with his long-estranged wife and baby. As Ira explains, "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." Though everyone criticizes her for being "ordinary," Maggie's ability to see the beauty and potential in others ultimately proves that she is the only one fighting the resignation they all fear. The book captured the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1989.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:04 -0400)

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A charming tale of an extraordinary day in the lives of two ordinary people. What begins as a two-hour road trip to a neighboring town turns into an all-day adventure for Ira and Maggie Moran.

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