Feb 10, 2009

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing Lessons begins with Maggie and Ira Moran leaving their home in Baltimore to go to a funeral a few hour’s drive away. Maggie’s childhood friend Serena has lost her husband to cancer. They drive to the funeral, and on their way back they visit their daughter-in-law, Fiona, whose marriage to their son fell apart. The whole story takes place in a day, but there are several flashbacks to the time when they first meet, to the early years of their marriage, and to the time of the dissolution of their son’s marriage.

I’d been meaning to read this book for well over a year, yet I kept putting it off. I wanted to read it because I’m supposed to be doing the Pulitzer Project (which part of me suspects I’ll never actually finish, but hey, it’s all about trying, right? And finding good books along the way), and also because it’s by Anne Tyler, and I’ve heard great things about her –Nick Hornby even said her book Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was one of the first reasons why he wanted to become a writer, and that’s a pretty strong recommendation in my book.

The main reason why I hesitated, though, was because the plot summary didn’t appeal to me at all. It sounds like nothing much happens, but that wasn’t really the problem—there are many books I love in which nothing much happens. I suppose the problem was that it sounds a bit like one of those strained marriage stories, with a final epiphany and maybe with a mid-life crisis thrown in for good measure. And more often than not, those don't quite work for me. Well, I don’t know if this is one of those books or not, but I do know I’m very, very glad I read it at last.

Breathing Lessons is surprisingly engrossing. I had trouble putting it town. Yes, nothing much happens, but it’s not a dull sort of nothing at all. The story’s full of small events and of memories of not so small ones, of moving bits, of humorous situations. Anne Tyler’s writing is perfect in its simplicity. The characters are completely believable, the dialogue just right. I breezed through this book, and I was sorry to see it end.

I’m not sure if I’d say that Breathing Lessons is really about Maggie and Ira’s marriage. In a way it is, but there’s more to it than that. I guess mostly it’s about Maggie herself, about her idealism and her shortcomings. It’s just a good story, really; a story about people and disappointments and tenderness and little everyday things. A story about having things not turn out as you hoped they would, but carrying on anyway because that’s what we do.

Also, I loved the fact that there was no final epiphany. Maggie and Ira continue much like they’ve always been. Perhaps they’re a little changed, like we sometimes are changed by a day. I liked it because more often than not, that’s how change happens. Not in a sudden epiphany, but one day at a time.

My favourite scene (I know it's long, but it's so good):
Dorrie worshipped Elvis Presley. Ordinarily Ira humoured her, even bought her posters when he came across them, but on that particular morning he was feeling so burdened, he just hadn’t the patience. “Elvis”, Dorrie said happily, and Ira said, “For God’s sake, Dorrie, don’t you know the guy is dead and buried?”
Then she had stopped smiling and her eyes had filled with tears, and Ira had felt pierced. Everything about her all at once saddened him—her skimpy haircut and her chapped lips and her thin face that was so homely and so sweet, if only people would see. Then he put an arm around her. He hugged her bony little body close and gazed over her head at the Constellation floating in the fog. (…) He had known then what the true waste was; Lord yes. It was not his having to support these people but his failure to notice how he loved them. He loved even his worn-down, defeated father, even the memory of his poor mother who had always been so pretty and never realized it because anytime she approached a mirror she had her mouth drawn up lopsided with shyness.
But then the feeling had faded (probably the very next instant, when Junie started begging to leave) and he forgot what he had learned. And no doubt he would forget again, just as Dorrie had forgotten, by the time they reached home, that Elvis Presley was no longer King of Rock
(Have you read this as well? Leave me a link to your post and I'll add it here.)


  1. I havent read this one, but it does sound good.
    great passage!


  2. Yeah, I loved this book. Maggie was so cute and misunderstood. The relationships were believable too. Maybe it's time for a reread...

  3. I read this a long time ago and loved it. I've never been disappointed by Anne Tyler's work, though.

  4. Well ... hmmm. I guessed I kind of missed something with this. I couldn't get through this at all. I also don't mind books where not much happens ... but this one didn't really do it for me. I'm not giving up on Anne, though, because there are a few of her others still on my bookshelves.

  5. I quite enjoyed this one as well. I think I like Tyler's Saint Maybe better, though.

  6. I read this a few years ago. I didn't really find a lot in it: the writing didn't jump out at me, and neither did the story. I'm not sure why, but it just wasn't a good match for me.

  7. I haven't read it but I totally enjoyed your review. After reading this I think it would be a story that I would probably enjoy.

  8. I have the same problem with Anne Tyler's books. There are so many books to read, I put her off. I have a few in my bookcase. Will re-think about it. glad you enjoyed her book.

  9. Hmm...I don't think I've read anything by this author, yet. I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I think I'll check out Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant first. ;)

  10. I read this many years ago, this was also my first Tyler but I've read several others by her afterwards. I wasn't wowed by any of her books but they have a certain silent quality that appeals to me when the mood strikes, which is why I love her. The way you described this book was exactly how I felt.. nothing much happens yet you keep turning the pages. In a way, it shares this same quality with Gilead. :)

  11. I love books that don't try to eek out some final lesson out of them. The story is usually enough and is more believable when the characters don't change overnight - things don't happen like that in the real world.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  12. I have exactly the same thoughts as you before you read her books, only that I haven't. I should pick up one of her books soon.

  13. oh shoot, I just read a few negative comments above. Now I'm sort of put off again..

  14. I had that problem with her Back When We Were Grownups. I didn't like it that much in the end... But I understand that some her others ones are very good and I admit I have several waiting on my shelf. Including Accidental Tourist.

  15. Well, I have to say that I'm mighty glad you read this book. Because it doesn't sound like a book I ever would have looked twice at otherwise. But your description of it really got to me, as did that passage. I'm definitely adding it to the wishlist!

  16. I have a few of her books on my shelf as well, but haven't read any. I did like the passage that you quoted though, and think I will read one of her soon.

  17. I do like Anne Tyler sometimes and this sounds like a good one. I know what you mean about the 'strained marriage' novels -- sometimes they are just boring. But this sounds good. Thanks!

  18. I really want to give Anne Taylor a try on day. From the quote it seems like a beautiful written book! might start from here:)

  19. Naida, glad you liked it!

    Chartroose: I liked the relationships too. Nothing felt overdone.

    Bermudaonion: I'll have to read more of her work!

    Betty and Boo's Mommy: Sorry to hear I didn't do it for you! I hope you enjoy the one you pick up next more :)

    Wordlily: I know my library has more of her books...I'll have to look for that one.

    Rebecca: I really liked the writing, actually! As they say, diversity makes the world go 'round :P

    Staci, I hope you do enjoy it if you pick it up :)

    Madeleine: I hope you enjoy the ones you have too.

    Melody: What Nick Hornby said made me very, very curious about that one.

    Claire: a silent quality...I think I know just what you mean.

    Saveophelia: Exactly!

    Mee: They're in the minority! Don't listen! Kidding, kidding. It's possible that you wouldn't like it...but it's also possible that you would :P

    Joanna: Sorry to hear you didn't like it...I think I'll leave that one for last, then :P

    Debi: I probably wouldn't have picked it up either if not for the Pulitzer Project. That's the real usefulness of awards for me. They brings books I might otherwise never notice to my attention.

    Zibilee: I'm glad you liked the passage and I hope you enjoy the book :)

    Daphne: They can be really boring, yes...and sometimes they annoy me because all the problems the characters have could be solved so easily with a little bit of honest communication.

    Valentina: I liked the writing a lot. It's simple, but it's full of passages that I found very moving.

  20. Thanks for the review of this as it isn't usually the type of book I would pick up. Haveing just really enjoyed Gilead which sounds a little similar in style I might have to give this a go.

  21. Rhinoa: It does have that quiet mood that people always say Gilead has too.

  22. I'd probably hesitate about reading this for the same reasons. Glad you enjoyed it though!

  23. Never heard of this book before, but from the intro I'm drawn to it because of the story all taking place in one day, with flashback scenes. Then I read the passage you included and I'm thinking the writing is gonna be fantastic.

  24. Sounds like a good book if you can love it despite the lack of plot. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  25. Anne Tyler's work is absolutely brilliant. I've read "Breathing lessons" three times already. " Dinner at the homesick restaurant" and "Celestial navigation" can only be described as phenomenal works of art. But I am with wordlily. "Saint Maybe" is also my favourite. One reviewer on the jacket sleeve actually describes it as: "Ms. Tyler at the peak of her power."


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