It took me a long time to read this rather quick book, and I’m still on the fence about it. I started it, read the first section (from Maggie’s perspective) and then started the second section (from Ira’s perspective) and then quit for about a week, and then picked it back up against because I was running out of time and finished it quickly. I think that I have previously read Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, although I’m not entirely sure that I’m right about that. I’ll be finding out soon, as I checked it out of the library as well.
I mostly picked this up because Liz from Adventures in reading . . . is a fan – so much so that she reread all of Tyler’s books last year. Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer for this book.
Breathing Lessons is set all in one day, but takes place over the entire 28 years that Maggie and Ira have been married, with the story of their marriage and lives told through discursions from each of their perspectives, and flashbacks to earlier events. At the beginning of the book, Maggie and Ira are getting ready to set off in their car for the funeral of a friend from when they were young. Maggie is picking up the car from having some work done on it, and, tuned to a call-in radio show she hears a caller she believes to be her former daughter-in-law calling in to talk about her decision to marry again, this time for security, as her first marriage, for love, has not worked out.
These two events take up the entire book – first, the funeral, which turns out to be one of the oddest funerals in the history of fiction, and then Maggie attempting, and ultimately persuading, Ira to stop by Fiona’s house (the ex-daughter-in-law) to attempt to effectuate a hail-Mary reconciliation between Fiona and Jesse, their son, and to see the 7 year old granddaughter from whom they are estranged. Maggie and Ira have two children: the feckless musician, Jesse, and the organized, capable Daisy. Maggie and Ira are driving Daisy to college the day after the funeral, and this fact, while not overplayed by Tyler, is the central piece of background information that, I think, informs the entire book.
As I said above, I’m on the fence about this book. On the one hand, Maggie and Ira both drove me completely bonkers, Maggie more than Ira. And, viewed as a piece of ethnography on the American marriage in the 20th century, I would not say that we are doing well at all. On the other hand, as a nearly empty-nester myself, I related to Maggie. While she is incredibly annoying, with her seeming incapacity to tell the truth to herself, much less the other people around her, she is also warm, caring and shit-scared of being alone with her marriage, without her kids to focus on. I don’t mean that she’s afraid of Ira – it’s clear that there is no abuse in their marriage, although I’m not sure how well suited they are one to one another. But Maggie is the sort of person who requires the role of caregiver, and she’s just about run out of time on that front – her oldest, her son, has moved out and her youngest, her daughter, is leaving her behind as well. Ira is capable and grounded and does not need Maggie to try to fix his life.
I know something about what this feels like, and my heart went out to Maggie as she scrambled around desperately, trying to get her granddaughter back into her life so that she could take on a caregiving role for that little girl. This all goes completely awry, because of Maggie’s habit of, to put it charitably, stretching the truth about other people to try to smooth over the rough spots in their relationships. She’s completely delusional about it in her desperation – she tries to convince Ira that they should propose having Leroy live with them so she can attend school in their neighborhood; Ira, befuddled by all of this tries to bring her back to reality. Reality is not a place that Maggie particularly enjoys, although it is coming for her hard.
By the end of the book, she’s left with only her marriage, and Ira. I can’t help but wonder what will happen next.
Thank you for the shout-out, and what an excellent review. I can see how you could identify with Maggie’s situation; I’m a do-gooder and there’s another of Tyler’s that I really winced at; yesterday I felt compelled to thank all the Commonwealth Games volunteers I saw in town and I bet she’d do that. I was a bit on the fence of it myself because of the casual animal deaths, and I have to say I did end up not quite such a fan of AT at the end as I thought I was at the beginning of my year of re-reading (that doesn’t usually happen and happily isn’t this year!), although I did enjoy the process. Do you think you’ll read another if you happen upon one?
I was also disturbed about the somewhat cavalier references to animal deaths – the poor kitten in the dryer was a lot, wasn’t it? I have cats, and I also have had experiences where kittens have climbed into the dryer as I’ve been loading and I was really shocked, frankly, by how someone could be so distracted that it could happen (even in fiction). I get it that it’s not Anne Tyler, but it’s her character and I was disappointed. I didn’t feel like it added to the character’s development enough to counteract the bad taste that it gave me.
I’m definitely planning to read more, although the one I had checked out – Ladder of Years – expired before I could get to it.