I’m on the wait list at the library to read French Braid by Anne Tyler and in the meantime I borrowed one of Tyler’s earlier books, Breathing Lessons. Published in 1988, this Pulitzer Prize winner is set in Baltimore and Pennsylvania and takes place during one day. It’s a story about marriage, family, disappointments and growing older.
The story begins when Maggie and Ira Moran set off to attend a funeral. Maggie wants to console her best friend, Serena, whose husband has just died, but she has an ulterior motive. Just before they leave, Maggie is sure she’s heard her ex-daughter-in-law, Fiona, announce on a radio show that she’s getting married again, this time for security. Why not swing by Fiona’s place and visit their only granddaughter, Leroy, whom they haven’t seen in years? Maybe Maggie can talk to Fiona and help her reconcile with their son, Jesse.
At this point, readers begin to get an idea of what Maggie is all about. She’s a wild card! Good intentioned, yes, but she has a habit of telling little lies to make people do what they wouldn’t otherwise do.
Maggie and Ira bicker, a lot, but it seems good-natured. They’re a settled, middle-aged couple. But as Tyler fills in the details of their marriage and the relationships between the family, the story becomes more complicated.
We learn about Jesse, who dropped out of high school to form a rock band and his sister, Daisy who will leave for college the next day. And we learn more about Ira and his lost dream of becoming a doctor, instead taking over his father’s framing store. Now he supports his father and his two sisters who live above the store.
Maggie may just be able to pull this one off as long as her little lies don’t catch up with her, as they usually do.
This may sound like a light story and it’s filled with amusing situations, but beneath the surface is a couple that has faced disappointments, separately. Maggie mourns her youth and feels jealous over the “power of the young.” She wonders how she will cope with old age and an empty nest. Ira feels lonely and tired and unsure what to do with his feelings about his children. He’s disappointed in his son and feels like his daughter doesn’t think much of him.
I enjoyed this very readable book because of how Tyler describes real people, full of flaws. The one thing I would say, though, is that it seems a little dated. Maggie and Ira seem so old, but she’s only forty-eight and he’s just turned fifty! Other than that small thing, definitely a great read.
I have read a lot of Anne Tyler’s books and I’ve never been disappointed. You can check them all out here.
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