Breathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler
Book Review by Amy Coffin
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Anne Tyler's novel, Breathing Lessons takes place in the span of a single day. Maggie and Ira Moran begin their morning preparing to attend a funeral. Their trip takes them from Baltimore to a country town in Pennsylvania. Driving on the back roads, Maggie realizes that they are near the home of their ex daughter-in-law, Fiona and her daughter, Leroy. Maggie entertains the thought of visiting them after all these years.

Maggie's dearest high-school friend, Serena is now a widow. Her husband Max just passed away. When the Morans arrive, several old classmates greet them. What is supposed to be a memorial service actually resembles a reunion. A series of events stir up old feelings and recollections for Maggie, and she examines her life and the choices she made.

An embarrassing, humorous, abrupt exit from the funeral leaves Ira and Maggie with half day's worth of time to spend. Ira wants to go back to his frame shop, Maggie decides she wants to visit her son Jesse's former wife and his only child. Maggie has it in her head that she can rekindle the love the couple had when they were young.

The Morans reflect again. The story goes back and forth between husband and wife. They analyze their own families as well as the one they created together. Jesse is a high school dropout who sings in a garage band. They play in local bars for "exposure" and are still looking for their big break.

Daisy, the Morans daughter, is heading off to college. She's bright yet distant, preferring to spend her time with her friend's mom rather than her own.

Maggie takes some more time to reflect on Jesse and Fiona's teenage marriage. Even then, Maggie meddled in their affairs with the best intentions and disastrous results.

Despite the past failures, Maggie still believes she knows what's best for her adult children. She has more on her mind than a short visit with her granddaughter. She thinks Jesse and Fiona should be together again.

The funeral, the surprise reunion and re-examination of a family's life are the subjects of Anne Tyler's 1989 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Breathing Lessons.

One of the great pleasures of reading this author's work is discovering her quirky characters. They are odd, complicated, common and unique. Tyler knows her creations better than some people know their own spouses. She builds her characters and sets them free to do whatever they wish within the story. It works.

Maggie and Ira Moran are no exception to the rule. Ira is a simple man, intent on running his frame shop and playing solitaire. Good-natured Maggie always has the best intentions, but her meddlesome ways make matters worse.

Though this review may portray Maggie as nosy pain in the side, it couldn't be farther from the case. (Which is why Tyler has the Pulitzer and I don't.)

This story works because of Tyler's patience to let the events unfold. It is very hard to write a novel that takes place in a single day. Tyler succeeds. The Morans attend a funeral and reflect on their young adulthood. They then visit their granddaughter for the first time in four years and again reflect on the past.

From this perspective, Breathing Lessons may not sound like much of a story, but that couldn't be farther form the case. The award-winner is full of humor and off beat observations. Readers may or may not relate to the characters, but you can bet they look familiar.

I enjoyed Breathing Lessons very much. There is no rock 'em sock 'em action. No suspense. No passion. Rather there is a story of introspection and reflection. In the course of a single day, Ira and Maggie Moran come to realize that their predictable, common marriage is really quite extraordinary. As you follow them on their journey of discovery, you'll see that Tyler's work is fascinating as well.

Also reviewed at
Back When We Were Grownups
Back When We Were Grownups
by Anne Tyler
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