NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“More powerful and moving than anything [Tyler] has done.” —Los Angeles Times
Unfolding over the course of a single emotionally fraught day, this stunning novel encompasses a lifetime of dreams, regrets and reckonings. Maggie and Ira Moran are on a road trip from Baltimore, Maryland to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of a friend. Along the way, they reflect on the state of their marriage, its trials and its triumphs—through their quarrels, their routines, and their ability to tolerate each other’s faults with patience and affection. Where Maggie is quirky, lovable and mischievous, Ira is practical, methodical and mired in reason. What begins as a day trip becomes a revelatory and unexpected journey, as Ira and Maggie rediscover the strength of their bond and the joy of having somebody with whom to share the ride, bumps and all.
Regarded by many as Tyler’s seminal work, Breathing Lessons celebrates the small miracles and magic of truly knowing someone, and evokes Jane Austen, Emma Straub, and other masters of the literary marriage.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 25, 1941
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B.A., Duke University, 1961
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By Anne Tyler
Random HouseAnne Tyler
All right reserved.
Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Maggie's girlhood friend had lost her husband. Deer Lick lay on a narrow country road some ninety miles north of Baltimore, and the funeral was scheduled for ten-thirty Saturday morning; so Ira figured they should start around eight. This made him grumpy. (He was not an early-morning kind of man.) Also Saturday was his busiest day at work, and he had no one to cover for him. Also their car was in the body shop. It had needed extensive repairs and Saturday morning at opening time, eight o'clock exactly, was the soonest they could get it back. Ira said maybe they'd just better not go, but Maggie said they had to. She and Serena had been friends forever. Or nearly forever: forty-two years, beginning with Miss Kimmel's first grade.
They planned to wake up at seven, but Maggie must have set the alarm wrong and so they overslept. They had to dress in a hurry and rush through breakfast, making do with faucet coffee and cold cereal. Then Ira headed off for the store on foot to leave a note for his customers, and Maggie walked to the body shop. She was wearing her best dress--blue and white sprigged, with cape sleeves--and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled but slowed her down some anyway; she was more used to crepe soles. Another problem was that the crotch of her panty hose had somehow slipped to about the middle of her thighs, so she had to take shortened, unnaturally level steps like a chunky little windup toy wheeling along the sidewalk.
Luckily, the body shop was only a few blocks away. (In this part of town things were intermingled--small frame houses like theirs sitting among portrait photographers' studios, one-woman beauty parlors, driving schools, and podiatry clinics.) And the weather was perfect--a warm, sunny day in September, with just enough breeze to cool her face. She patted down her bangs where they tended to frizz out like a forelock. She hugged her dress-up purse under her arm. She turned left at the corner and there was Harbor Body and Fender, with the peeling green garage doors already hoisted up and the cavernous interior smelling of some sharp-scented paint that made her think of nail polish.
She had her check all ready and the manager said the keys were in the car, so in no time she was free to go. The car was parked toward the rear of the shop, an elderly gray-blue Dodge. It looked better than it had in years. They had straightened the rear bumper, replaced the mangled trunk lid, ironed out a half-dozen crimps here and there, and covered over the dapples of rust on the doors. Ira was right: no need to buy a new car after all. She slid behind the wheel. When she turned the ignition key, the radio came on--Mel Spruce's AM Baltimore, a call-in talk show. She let it run, for the moment. She adjusted the seat, which had been moved back for someone taller, and she tilted the rearview mirror downward. Her own face flashed toward her, round and slightly shiny, her blue eyes quirked at the inner corners as if she were worried about something when in fact she was only straining to see in the gloom. She shifted gears and sailed smoothly toward the front of the shop, where the manager stood frowning at a clipboard just outside his office door.
Today's question on AM Baltimore was: "What Makes an Ideal Marriage?" A woman was phoning in to say it was common interests. "Like if you both watch the same kind of programs on TV," she explained. Maggie couldn't care less what made an ideal marriage. (She'd been married twenty-eight years.) She rolled down her window and called, "Bye now!" and the manager glanced up from his clipboard. She glided past him--a woman in charge of herself, for once, lipsticked and medium-heeled and driving an undented car.
A soft voice on the radio said, "Well, I'm about to remarry? The first time was purely for love? It was genuine, true love and it didn't work at all. Next Saturday I'm marrying for security."
Maggie looked over at the dial and said, "Fiona?"
She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender--the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.
Back when Maggie played baseball with her brothers, she used to get hurt but say she was fine, for fear they would make her quit. She'd pick herself up and run on without a limp, even if her knee was killing her. Now she was reminded of that, for when the manager rushed over, shouting, "What the . . . ? Are you all right?" she stared straight ahead in a dignified way and told him, "Certainly. Why do you ask?" and drove on before the Pepsi driver could climb out of his truck, which was probably just as well considering the look on his face. But in fact her fender was making a very upsetting noise, something like a piece of tin dragging over gravel, so as soon as she'd turned the corner and the two men--one scratching his head, one waving his arms--had disappeared from her rearview mirror, she came to a stop. Fiona was not on the radio anymore. Instead a woman with a raspy tenor was comparing her five husbands. Maggie cut the motor and got out. She could see what was causing the trouble. The fender was crumpled inward so the tire was hitting against it; she was surprised the wheel could turn, even. She squatted on the curb, grasped the rim of the fender in both hands, and tugged. (She remembered hunkering low in the tall grass of the outfield and stealthily, wincingly peeling her jeans leg away from the patch of blood on her knee.) Flakes of gray-blue paint fell into her lap. Someone passed on the sidewalk behind her but she pretended not to notice and tugged again. This time the fender moved, not far but enough to clear the tire, and she stood up and dusted off her hands. Then she climbed back inside the car but for a minute simply sat there. "Fiona!" she said again. When she restarted the engine, the radio was advertising bank loans and she switched it off.
Ira was waiting in front of his store, unfamiliar and oddly dashing in his navy suit. A shock of ropy black, gray-threaded hair hung over his forehead. Above him a metal sign swung in the breeze: sam's frame shop. picture framing. matting. your needlework professionally displayed. Sam was Ira's father, who had not had a thing to do with the business since coming down with a "weak heart" thirty years before. Maggie always put "weak heart" in quotation marks. She made a point of ignoring the apartment windows above the shop, where Sam spent his cramped, idle, querulous days with Ira's two sisters. He would probably be standing there watching. She parked next to the curb and slid over to the passenger seat.
Ira's expression was a study as he approached the car. Starting out pleased and approving, he rounded the hood and drew up short when he came upon the left fender. His long, bony, olive face grew longer. His eyes, already so narrow you couldn't be sure if they were black or merely dark brown, turned to puzzled, downward-slanting slits. He opened the door and got in and gave her a sorrowful stare.
"There was an unexpected situation," Maggie told him.
"Just between here and the body shop?"
"I heard Fiona on the radio."
"That's five blocks! Just five or six blocks."
"Ira, Fiona's getting married."
He gave up thinking of the car, she was relieved to see. Something cleared on his forehead. He looked at her a moment and then said, "Fiona who?"
"Fiona your daughter-in-law, Ira. How many Fionas do we know? Fiona the mother of your only grandchild, and now she's up and marrying some total stranger purely for security."
Ira slid the seat farther back and then pulled away from the curb. He seemed to be listening for something--perhaps for the sound of the wheel hitting. But evidently her tug on the fender had done the trick. He said, "Where'd you hear this?"
"On the radio while I was driving."
"They'd announce a thing like that on the radio?"
"She telephoned it in."
"That seems kind of . . . self-important, if you want my honest opinion," Ira said.
"No, she was just--and she said that Jesse was the only one she'd ever truly loved."
"She said this on the radio?"
"It was a talk show, Ira."
"Well, I don't know why everyone has to go spilling their guts in public these days," Ira said.
"Do you suppose Jesse could have been listening?" Maggie asked. The thought had just occurred to her.
"Jesse? At this hour? He's doing well if he's up before noon."
Maggie didn't argue with that, although she could have. The fact was that Jesse was an early riser, and anyhow, he worked on Saturdays. What Ira was implying was that he was shiftless. (Ira was much harder on their son than Maggie was. He didn't see half as many good points to him.) She faced forward and watched the shops and houses sliding past, the few pedestrians out with their dogs. This had been the driest summer in memory and the sidewalks had a chalky look. The air hung like gauze. A boy in front of Poor Man's Grocery was tenderly dusting his bicycle spokes with a cloth.
"So you started out on Empry Street," Ira said.
"Where the body shop is."
"Yes, Empry Street."
"And then cut over to Daimler . . ."
He was back on the subject of the fender. She said, "I did it driving out of the garage."
"You mean right there? Right at the body shop?"
"I went to hit the brake but I hit the gas instead."
"How could that happen?"
"Well, Fiona came on the radio and I was startled."
"I mean the brake isn't something you have to think about, Maggie. You've been driving since you were sixteen years old. How could you mix up the brake with the gas pedal?"
"I just did, Ira. All right? I just got startled and I did. So let's drop it."
"I mean a brake is more or less reflex."
"If it means so much to you I'll pay for it out of my salary."
Now it was his turn to hold his tongue. She saw him start to speak and then change his mind. (Her salary was laughable. She tended old folks in a nursing home.)
If they'd had more warning, she thought, she would have cleaned the car's interior before they set out. The dashboard was littered with parking-lot stubs. Soft-drink cups and paper napkins covered the floor at her feet. Also there were loops of black and red wire sagging beneath the glove compartment; nudge them accidentally as you crossed your legs and you'd disconnect the radio. She considered that to be Ira's doing. Men just generated wires and cords and electrical tape everywhere they went, somehow. They might not even be aware of it.
Excerpted from Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
1. This novel takes place in one day. What effect does this time frame have on the story? Why do you think the author constructed the book this way? What day is it–what makes it signiﬁcant? Why are emotions running high?
2. Maggie’s friend Serena is deﬁnitely a secondary character, but over the course of the novel, she comes up again and again. What kind of childhood did Serena have? What kind of marriage? What is her relationship to Maggie, and to Ira? Why is her character integral to this book?
3. Did Ira do the right thing to take over his dad’s business and assume the care of his sisters? Did he let himself be trapped? Should he have gone to med school?
4. Ira’s sisters are both, to a greater and lesser degree, mentally ill. How has their illness affected the family? How has it affected Ira and Maggie and their family life?
5. Ira doesn’t talk much–he plays solitaire, whistles, and when he does talk, he “tells the truth.” Is his truth-telling appropriate or harmful? Is it more true or “right” than Maggie’s little white lies and exaggerations
6. Breathing Lessons in some ways is a typical journey story, in which people set forth, have adventures, and end up with a new perspective. Maggie and Ira’s journey is both physical and emotional. Where do they go? Whom do they encounter? What happens? Where do they end up?
7. Did you ﬁnd Maggie irritating or amusing? Do you think she is a nice person? Why did she never go to college? Do you think, as her daughter, Daisy, thinks, that Maggie is ordinary? Do you think, as her husband, Ira, does, that she behaves as if this is a practice life?
8. This book is written in three parts. Why? How do the different parts function? Why does the second part exist?
9. Mr. Otis tells a story about his dog Bessie, who couldn’t fetch her ball when it landed on a chair–she would put her nose between the spindles and whine, never thinking to walk around to the front of the chair. “Blind in spots,” says Mr. Otis. How and when does the image of spindles occur elsewhere in the novel?
10. Although there are all sorts of instruction in life for driving and cooking and even breathing, there are few lessons on how to live life. People muddle along. What are the lessons you wish some of these characters had learned?
11. The book opens with a funeral–a funeral that’s also like a high school reunion, where Maggie and Ira see old friends and the toll age and death have taken on them. This is just the ﬁrst loss we encounter in the book. What are other losses?
12. Maggie intercepts Fiona at an abortion clinic to talk her into having the baby. How does Maggie’s opinion differ from those of the protesters outside the clinic? Is Maggie pro-choice or antiabortion, or can you tell? Why is her argument persuasive? Do you think Fiona would have gone through with the abortion if Maggie hadn’t talked to her?
13. Maggie has a habit of making things up–lying, you might say, or putting a “hopeful” spin on things. With her well-intended “exaggerations” or lies, she makes people do things that they otherwise might not have done. When are these little lies benign in the book? When do they have a more profound, even destructive result?
14. Jesse and Fiona are very young when they marry. What are their expectations? What disappoints them? What breaks up the marriage? Could the marriage have been saved? Do you agree with Maggie that they still love each other?
15. Maggie assumes that most people look at her marriage with envy and is surprised to hear otherwise. What does her marriage look like from the inside, from her point of view? How do you think Ira regards it? Jesse? Daisy? What does the marriage look like to you?
16. By bedtime, Maggie and Ira have drawn close to each other and are more ready to embark together on a life without having children at home. Do you think that the day’s events also served Leroy well? And the others–Serena, Mr. Otis, Fiona, Leroy– do you think they are better off for their encounters with Ira and Maggie?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I find it hard to believe that the average rating is 3 stars. I found it wonderful, worthy of the Pulitzer. It's a great read about how ordinary life can seem and yet Tyler makes it blossom. I read it several years ago and it allowed me to breathe during a difficult vacation when I was alone in a foreign city.
I find the book easy to read. It reminds me of the Audrey Hepburn movie 'Two for the Road'. However, I could not totally relate to its characters probably because of the age gap. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to my mom and aunts who are all going through mid-life crisis. oops...
Breathing Lessons is a character study of an average married couple. Maggie wants what she feels is best for her family and will meddle in their lives when necessary and Ira just wants his children to grow and become respondsible adults. There are several rather humorous scenes of Maggie interfering in peoples lives. However I was frustrated by the ending of the book as neither character has changed and they will continue their lives the way they always have.
Breathing Lessons is an extravagant novel that mostly takes place in a beat up car. Each character has it's own strange habit. Maggie and her complete opposite husband, Ira takes a road trip to an old friend funeral. It was wonderfully written, for each new book she writes gets better and better. Each scene is important because it symbolizes something that'll bring the beginning and end together. The whole book was written about one day with the characters reflecting on the past. This makes the characters more dynamic and realistic. Anne Tyler uses her own sense of writing. She comes up with catchy phrases like 'faucet coffee.' I was never bored but almost confused. It seems like she writes the novel then switches up the chapters. Sometimes I know too much or not enough. By contrasting the characters, subtle details shine through the characters, which make them more realistic. While reading, I compared the characters to me. I'm more of a nitpicker like Maggie. Ira and Maggie have a typical relationship. I'm surprise something like this could be made up. The detail that Tyler puts into her characters is unbelievable. It so unnecessary but makes it worth the while in the end. Breathing Lessons like other books I've read by Tyler entraps you in making you want to know why and what is going to happen next. If you like reading about what other families go through, or you just like an original book, then pick up Breathing Lessons. Families wouldn't be outsiders anymore.
It's hard to go wrong with Anne Tyler.
This book creeps up on you. Like a movie that's dull in the beginning, then when it's all over all too soon, you go "Why can't all movies be that simple and that beautiful?" This is storytelling at its simplest and finest.
I had a glimpse of the humor of Maggie's character in the very beginning but after that I found this book suffocating. It doesn't let enough light in to let the characters breathe - the title is oddly suiting. The main character quickly lost her charm and became very irritating to me as Tyler micro-focusd on her every thought and action.
Maggie Moran is a well meaning wife and mother with a big heart who seems to cause chaos at every turn. She loves her husband Ira, son Jesse and daughter Daisy, but Ira seems indifferent, Jesse has problems of his own, and Daisy, who is about to begin college, is so independent that Maggie thinks she doesn¿t need her any more. Jesse is father of Leroy and husband of Fiona, who Maggie is desperately trying to get back together for their daughter¿s sake, but sometimes things are just not meant to be, which doesn¿t stop her from trying to push them together every chance she gets.The entire book takes place in a one day time frame as Maggie and Ira are driving to her high school friend¿s husband¿s funeral. Maggie and Ira get on each other¿s nerves during the road trip and each reminisces about life events that brought them to the place they are today. This book is a delightfully funny and honest portrayal of how people, especially those with grown children look back on their lives and imagine various what if scenarios, for example, what if Ira had pursued his dream of becoming a doctor, and what if Maggie had married her first serious boyfriend. Although, sometimes it is fun to look back on your life and imagine what could have been it can also make you thankful for what you do have, even if may seem ordinary to others. This is a realistic portrayal of how spouses can get on each others nerves, children can drive us crazy, etc. but we do love and appreciate them.I enjoyed reading this book and there were parts that honestly did make me laugh out loud.
Depressing. Wished I'd picked a different book on this gray day!
Breathing Lessons has been on my tbr list for ages not only because it won the Pulitzer Prize, but also because I¿m an Anne Tyler fan. While I enjoyed it, I¿m always of the mindset that a prize-winning book should be in the 4 1/2 to 5 star range for me, and this one was slightly under that with a 4 star rating. An interesting note is that The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize as well.The story takes place in a single day and doesn¿t have much of a plot, but the characters are so believable that that didn¿t really bother me. Maggie and Ira Moran seemed like a very real couple to me. The novel centers on their marriage but also branches out into Maggie¿s relationship with her friend Serena and the couple¿s relationships with their children and grandchild. In the novel Maggie is portrayed as a flighty woman who just wants everyone to get along and quite frequently tries to encourage reconciliation between injured parties. Ira is somewhat aloof but has a habit of whistling tunes that betray his inner mindset. He can be blunt at times and doesn¿t appreciate Maggie¿s well-intentioned meddling. However, in the end we are left wondering which of the two has really done the most damage by his or her actions.I could identify with Maggie¿s wish to be more involved in her children¿s and granchild¿s lives. I also identified with some of Ira¿s issues and their issues as a married couple. I think almost everyone would know a couple like Maggie and Ira Moran. Perhaps that is what Tyler does so well, though. She brings those `typical¿ characters to life in a way that makes us wish we could continue the relationship with them even after the story is finished.
I like Anne Tyler but found this one hard to plough through. Rarely have I come across such an annoying central character as Maggie. I got so cross with her as she kept on meddling with other people's lives, and always getting caught out. Some might view it as a masterly characterisation of an under-achieving woman who feels her life ebbing away from her, but she just bugged me.
When the book begins, Maggie and Ira Moran are headed off to the funeral of Max, Serena's husband. Serena is Maggie's best friend from childhood. Maggie and Ira are 48 and 50 respectively and have been married for 28 years and have two children, Jesse and Daisy. I know. It all sounds predictable and boring, but this book was anything but that. Maggie is the queen of optimism and manipulation (but in the most loving way). Ira is a practical, no-nonsense, face-reality kind of guy. So Maggie gets them into situations and Ira gets them out of situations. The book covers just one day in their life but also flashes back to how they got together and also their children's lives, particularly Jesse's marriage to Fiona and the birth of their daughter, Leroy, and then Jesse and Fiona's divorce. Maggie is convinced Jesse and Fiona should get back together and maniplulations ensue, some humorous, some sad. Parts of the book were laugh-out-loud funny, especially the funeral sequence. Wonderful read! Anne Tyler at her best.
I think I must have missed something with this book. It won the Pulitzer and was also the Time Book of the Year for 1989. I really don't get it. I mean, it was fine. It was just the story of an average married couple, traveling to a funeral and back. Nothing terribly exciting happens. The characters were completely forgettable and felt really cut and dry for me. Not a lot of depth.Overall, I didn't get bored or annoyed while reading the book, but it left pretty much no impact on me.
I wasn't very taken with the novel at first. Maggie and her bickering with her husband, Ira, exasperated me--as it did her husband. But his affection for her was evident by the end of the first chapter, and by then I felt a similar emotion for this middle-aged American Emma. Like Austen's Emma, Maggie does real damage with her interference--but does have heart. The story was studded by flashbacks in the midst of this tale of a day in which Maggie and her husband of 28 years travel to the funeral of the husband of Maggie's best friend Serena--and take a detour to visit their son's divorced wife and their granddaughter. Parts from Maggie's perspective bookend a part from Ira's point of view, forming a meditation upon love and marriage. I remember first being charmed by the story of Maggie's crush on one of the nursing home patients where she's an aide. She fantasizes about this courtly man at times when she's feeling sour about her marriage, only to realize that what she loves in the man is that he's like Ira. Maggie is meddlesome and ditzy, her husband tactless and aloof, but both of them are good people, and the novel is filled with sharp insights and warm humor.For all that, I didn't lose my heart to the book, and unless I love the other two novels in the omnibus edition I own more (Accidental Tourist and Searching for Caleb) I doubt it'll remain much longer on my bookshelf. That isn't the fault of the book, really but it's just this isn't quite the kind of book I love. It never made me spellbound with the prose, or tempted me to dogear a page because of an unforgettable line, there's no twist. These aren't extraordinary people or ordinary people faced with the extraordinary, or set in an exotic land of long ago. They're just the people next door--written with insight and affection, but not quite what I look for in a novel. Rather this is what might be called "domestic drama." A The Corrections without the literary pretentiousness of style, and much more likeable characters.
The whole story is one day in the life of Maggie and Ira Moran. A day that started out about going to a friend's husband's funeral branches out when they head home into many other pit stops and the rememberance of their big moments in life. Tyler has a gift for writing about everyday people and making their lives seem relevant and relatable. I loved this story because there were no real great changes or revelations, just life continuing on and trying to find meaning from it all. The characters all have their quirks and flaws, yet they are very endearing, and as a reader I had empathy for these people.
Rich characterization. Lightweight treatment, but it's the style I like: deep characters with minimal plot development. Whole novel takes place in 1 day - I like the quirky characters too.
I liked this simple tale of two middle aged partners in marriage. The whole story takes place during one day as the husband and wife spend most of the time in their car driving to and from a friend's funeral. Of course, there are detours on the way, but most of the "action" takes place while driving where the author elegantly combines current conversations with their individual reflections of the past - mainly of their sweet and awkward courtship. The husband and wife seemed very real to me (however, I must confess that for some reason I started picturing them as Kitty and Red Foreman from That 70s Show...). Anyway, I found myself rooting for their "happiness" - sentimental, I know, but the story did not sink to the level of sappiness. Also, their difficult relationships with their widely different children was given a bittersweet sense of reality as well. Not a profound book, but still a very enjoyable read. I will definitely keep on the lookout for more of Tyler's books in anticipation of another rainy Sunday afternoon.
One of my favorite Anne Tyler books. I loved every minute of the trip. I loved the way she describes momentary observations.She is a gift.
This is an easy read with a common thread through vignettes.
loved this book!
This is a fantastic story, with charecters that you will love and care about. Very funny at times, laugh out loud funny ! One of my all time favorite books.
Moved along slow and steady, but left wondering what was the point. Was not thrilled with the ending - felt like it just dropped off. A friend in book club felt she related to Maggie and enjoyed it (it was also her second time to read it).