Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

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Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Ostensibly a book about a day in the lives of married couple Maggie and Ira Moran that's actually so much more and better than it sounds. Well observed, funny and touching but be warned: you may end up wanting to throttle Maggie (in a good way).
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 1992
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099201410

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This Pulitzer Prize winning novel revolves around 24 hours in the lives of Maggie and Ira Moran as they attend a friend's funeral and make a detour on the way home. As the couple spend the day together they share events from their past that put their present in context. I know this seems a somewhat sparse structure for a story but don't be put off. Somewhere between Anne Tyler's idea and its execution, something very good happens.

For starters there are Ira and Maggie themselves. A couple married for 25 years, they seem to have grown together in that bickering comfort that well established marriages reach over time. They're so well observed that they bristle with arguments familiar to many. The wife-reading-a-map and the wish-you'd-put-them-back-where-you-found-them arguments, for instance, are both represented. They made me laugh, Anne Tyler's insights into the structure of relationships gave me pause for thought and, speaking as the pacifist I am, Maggie just made me want to... well... shake her violently at the very least.

Indeed, Maggie is not a character that one can shrug off or ignore. She deserves and demands nothing less than full on engagement. As the book is written from alternating points of view and Maggie starts the ball rolling, the reader is drawn into her world. I found myself smiling at her thoughts and little idiosyncrasies but then, as I read Ira's version of his wife, a different picture emerged. That's not a complaint; it's the main reason for writing points of view and a good author can use it to turn readers' emotions and perspectives around on a sixpence. Anne Tyler is such an author.

Ira feels like a real person, put upon by a lazy domineering father whom he has to support (and Ira also supports his two sisters). However, Maggie sometimes feels like a soap opera construct; almost a caricature to ensure that the plot remains entertaining. I may not like her but she is definitely good value.

Not everyone in the novel is blessed with the Morans' argumentative happiness. The funeral (producing one of the funniest set pieces in the book, by the way) is the sad ending of the marriage of their friends Serena and Max. The author has a light touch as the fun doesn't come from irreverence but originates in the havoc Serena causes when she insists that it replicates their wedding. Then there are the Morans' divorced son and ex-daughter-in-law, Jesse and Fiona. Maggie wants them back together again and attempts to bring about her goal with a zeal that disregards any feelings that either may have. That perhaps sums Maggie up: she means well and wants to make the world a better place her way, despite what the world may want.

Amongst the almost comedy sketch vignettes and moments of touching reflection, Anne Tyler leaves nuggets of wisdom scattered for those who want to harvest them. At one point Ira talks of their relationship being like a tree that has deep roots, impervious to any potentially damaging events because they're so deep and entwined. It's an almost throwaway line, but the metaphor works and perhaps explains the fragility of relationships that don't age as well.

If you're looking for a few hours of smiles, recognition and the odd tear, Breathing Lessons is well worth a try. Sampling a day of the Morans' life left me looking at things slightly differently like a good book should, and made me very grateful that I, for one, didn't know anyone quite like Maggie.

If you enjoyed this there are more Anne Tyler books waiting for you. How about Noah's Compass or The Beginner's Goodbye?

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Buy Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler at


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