Chapter 56: “Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler (1989)

“They entered Pennsylvania and the road grew smooth for a few hundred yards, like a good intention, before settling back to the old scabby, stippled surface.”

Over the past twelve months, I’ll estimate that I completed two—maybe three—of these Pulitzer novels. I was in transition and my books never saw the light of day, being packed away in boxes.

Now that I have my own place once again, and my books are flourishing on the giant shelves that I built for them in my bedroom, I am making up for lost time by plowing through these Pulitzers at a break-neck pace.

Over the past twelve months I read, at most, three books. In the past few weeks I’ve read seven; the seventh and most recent being Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1989).

It was in the last several pages of Breathing Lessons that I suddenly became very dejected—I’m finishing off books left and right, the end of the journey approaching nearer and nearer into view, and when I realized that I only have a little over twenty books left on this list, it was like coming up to a great chasm. Almost a fear of finishing the project.

What am I going to do when this project is over? There’s going to be this great emptiness in me, this void that I’ll have to fill with some other silly project to occupy my time. It really is saddening, the way this project (and most things in life) is so finite. Sure, this journey is open-ended—as long as the Pulitzer committee is awarding a prize for fiction, Joshua and I will be doing this project; but it won’t be with the same tenacity, the same drive and determination, the same voraciousness. It won’t be a mad dash to glory anymore.

It will be a leisurely drive on an open road, stretching far into the horizon; once a year, having to fill up our tank.

And that sort of liberation, that sort of break from the recklessness with which we undertook this project, seems—I don’t know… Daunting.

Of course, it didn’t help any that this sort of sadness, this emptiness that pervades anything that is quickly approaching the end, was the main subject of this book—Anne Tyler’s 1989 Pulitzer-winning novel, Breathing Lessons.

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When I was a younger man, I was very cynical about marriage. Even though I’m engaged, there are still times even now when I have the fleeting thought “What’s the point?” I always thought of it as a hindrance—something that would weigh me down while I tried to fly to heights, higher and higher. I’ve never been satisfied in one place, never feel content, always wanting to do something different, always wanting to leave my mark on the world. In my mind, marriage was a distraction. Something you do when you’ve given up on accomplishing anything on your own.

I could be mistaken, but that seemed to be what Anne Tyler was trying to say in this novel, too. In it, she paints a tremendously bleak portrait of marriage.

Ira and Maggie Moran—married 28 years, presumably aged around 50-55 years old, embark on a one-day road trip for a friend’s funeral and, along the way, discover a lot of things about themselves, their marriage, their lives, and their effects on the lives of others.

One thing that makes this book so tremendously bleak is, indeed, how well it’s written. Every character in the book is like a living portrait—so real. I mean, when you read this book, you know these people; you encounter these people everyday; you probably have these people in your own family.

Maggie Moran is the quintessential meddlesome, absent-minded, emotionally unstable, middle-aged wife/mother. The type who changes moods at the drop of a hat, the type who sets goals for herself that she has no ambition to complete (but still claims to abide by (like her diet)), the type that is completely self-involved. Borderline sociopathic. Has her nose in everybody’s business, slyly strong arms her friends and family, half-wittingly imposes her will upon people—single-handedly attempts to realign the Natural Order of Things. Especially when it comes to her mostly estranged son and his ex-wife.

Ira Moran, likewise, is the quintessential run-down, ambitionless, emotionally vacant, middle-aged husband/father. He’s flat, dull, dry; an empty shell of a man. Can’t see over the hedge, can’t hear the Truth over the sound of his lawnmower. The type of man who doesn’t understand art or feeling (which explains why he whistles songs instead of singing them), the type of man who is rigid and confines every aspect of his life to a single set of rules (which explains his obsession with playing Solitaire), the type of man who, while visiting Fiona (his ex-daughter-in-law), refuses to catch up with her, to speak to her even, would rather inspect the space heater sitting on the living room floor and ask “how many BTU’s” it kicks out.

And these two people are just stuck together. They’re stuck together, mostly can’t stand each other, but stay together because it’s certainly easier than being alone. Besides, who wants to be alone? While this is a relief for Ira (who, in his younger years, was forced to provide for his dysfunctional family, forced to give up his dream of being a doctor), it’s a point of regret for Maggie (who had the whole world in front of her as a kid, graduating at the top of her class with promises of scholarships to university and a life of success and importance, then settled into a boring, routine, completely forgettable existence).

They seem to be okay with this existence, though, for the majority of the book. Which, in turn, makes the reader feel completely ambivalent towards them. Then, at the very end, Tyler throws in this little nugget:

“…Maggie rested her head against his chest and watched. He had arrived at the interesting part of the game by now, she saw. He had passed that early, superficial stage when any number of moves seemed possible, and now his choices were narrower and he had to show real skill and judgement. She felt a little stir of something came over her like a flush, a sort of inner buoyancy, and she lifted her face to kiss the warm blade of his cheekbone. Then she slipped free and moved to her side of the bed, because tomorrow they had a long car trip to make and she knew she would need a good night’s sleep before they started.”

That’s when you realize just how sad their lives are. As they approach their twilight years, they’re running out of moves, running out of opportunities, running out of time. Gone are the days when anything is a possibility; the life they have carved out for themselves, that they have settled into—that’s all they have left. Routine, monotony, and the empty shells of each other.

But at least they have that, unlike Jesse and Fiona and Serena, who all end up with nothing.

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There’s not much negative I have to say about this one. Overall it’s a good book, one that you can probably breeze through in a day or two as it’s not very challenging. Having said that, I think Tyler chose a very challenging topic to write, but accomplished it with elegance and grace. There’s nothing in the book that’s too light, too glossy, to sugar-coated, or too much to bear—it’s a perfectly concise glimpse of relationships gone defunct.

Stylistically, I love Tyler’s prose, she is an absolute master of dialogue, and she perfectly captures the type of people she writes about. Really, my only complaint of her writing is her use of metaphor and symbolism, which can be a bit obvious at times.

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