Wow – we’re into June in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and almost half-way through the project (there are 23 books and this was number 11. Can you believe that?) We’re using a Vintage edition here but amazingly and unusually, I did NOT write the date of acquisition in this book! However, my trusty Index to my Reading Diaries has me having bought the book some time in 1997, although I read it in July 1998, so I’m thinking perhaps I bought it that year. Who actually now knows?!

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Breathing Lessons”

(1997/98)

Same old song and dance. Same old arguments, same recriminations. The same jokes and affectionate passwords, yes, and abiding loyalty and gestures of support and consolations no one else knew how to offer; but also the same old resentments dragged up year after year, with nothing ever totally forgotten: the time Ira didn’t act happy to hear Maggie was pregnant, the time Maggie failed to defend Ira in front of her mother, the time Ira refused to visit Maggie in the hospital, the time Maggie forgot to invite Ira’s family to Christmas dinner. (p. 158-9)

First off, I will say that I did enjoy this book apart from one point which I will address later but don’t particularly want to dwell on. I did not remember this one again, and in fact had it mixed up with “Ladder of Years”, in the sense that I thought it was the one where the woman runs away from her life, but this is the one that’s a day in the life of a woman who very much runs towards her life, and everyone else’s, and, to be charitable, tries to do good in those lives.

Last read (“The Accidental Tourist“) we had a central character who was a very organised man, having to deal with two loves of his life who were serendipitous, accidental and vague in their planning. This time around, we have Maggie as the central character, who does things on a whim and is never hugely organised, her husband Ira tutting and hissing around her as if he can’t bear to see someone so random. Like in “Searching for Caleb”, this mismatched pair have a daughter, Daisy, who only wants to be neat and tidy and organised, like everyone else, and to make it to a good college to study an academic subject. And like several of the books, but from a different angle, Jesse, their son, is the good-looking failed rock star who picks up a follower, marries her and then has a ramshackle sort of marriage and baby until that fails. There’s also a couple of siblings living with their elderly parent, in the rest of Ira’s family, and a small family owned shop that passes down the generations almost by accident, like the photography business in Earthly Possessions, and Maggie has a number of siblings although this is not laboured. There’s a road trip to a life event, too, as in “The Clock Winder”. Lots of nice links to the rest of Tyler’s oeuvre so far.

Ostensibly, we have a day where Maggie and Ira must drive to her friend’s husband’s funeral, and back again, before taking their daughter to college the next day. But we open with their marriage and patterns, and then flip into a vague plan to go and search out the mother of their granddaughter, now living with her mother, somewhere sort of along the way, with side excursions and a long section reaching back into history, a common trope Tyler uses, always to good effect. By the end, we know their marriage well, the moments of support, the long marriage characteristics pulled out in the quote at the top of this review, and there is a moment of perhaps hope, or unity. Is there?

So we have a long marriage and a short one, but the main point is that Maggie cannot help a) meddling in the lives of those close to her, and b) getting involved in some way in the lives of strangers. She tells a waitress in a random diner too much information and causes an elderly Black man to become confused about the state of his car and find out his life story while embarking on a side road trip. Everything is slightly confused by Maggie’s habit of smoothing things over with half-truths and lies, of saying what the other person wants to hear, which she can’t see as meddling but everyone else does:

She was in trouble with everyone in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn’t seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the word were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines – something like a poorly printed newspaper ad – and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place. (p. 312)

I feel like Tyler might be on the side of the Organised People in this one. She goes quite far in proving Maggie’s fecklessness and inability to do the right thing, and this is where I diverged from liking the book: she introduces three animal deaths, at least two of which just serve to show Maggie’s ineptitude and the serious effects it can have, and this upset me, especially as it’s not something she often does (OK, there’s obviously a child’s death in “Accidental Tourist” and other novels but this is small pieces that could be lifted with no effect). I don’t want to discuss that further, but it left a slightly bad taste.

Have you read this one? What did you think?