Breathing Lessons: (from Amazon) Unfolding over the course of a single emotionally fraught day, this stunning novel encompasses a lifetime of dreams, regrets and reckonings—and is oftern regarded as Tyler’s seminal work. 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.Amazon.com
I received this book as a gift for my 40th birthday. It had been on my wish list for a bit because in 2019 I had read The Accidental Tourist for my podcast.
But Anne Tyler has this amazing reputation. Who am I to judge an author by one book? So I sleuthed on the interwebs and found an Anne Tyler book that is considered one of her best and that had an interesting premise and added it to my wish list.
I was excited to read this book… and my excitement lasted until around page 126 when I started to get nervous and 50 pages later I was downright upset but by then I was so close to the end I figured it was better to finish it and know for sure that my hopes and been dashed than to give up and never know.
Plus, I am trying to read a book a week and this book was already taking me far too long.
Ok, I did the T, let’s look at the rest of my ASPECT method.
To be fun, we shall start with plot and characters. The story centers around Maggie and Ira, a couple in their silver years who are taking a day trip to a funeral. The entire novel takes place over the course of one day which is a lovely idea. Throughout this one day, they both examine their marriage and all the ups and downs of parenthood, at least as far as one of their kids. (They have two children but the daughter is pretty much ignored while we get more than ample information about the son.)
I like the idea of the plot, the self-contained bottle type of setting. They are trapped in the car for most of the book but they do have some side adventures including getting gas, eating a snack, the funeral, the after-funeral gathering, and then a side trip to visit their estranged former daughter-in-law and grandchild. The premise is sound. The plot has no holes…. And yet…
And yet it drags. It plods along like a car slowly running out of juice. I appreciate the meandering sort of adventure the two are on where you totally think you are just going from point A to point B with just enough time for some casual introspection (it is a funeral for a childhood friend after all) but nooooo. Suddenly you are helping a stranger or having a weird pit stop, or getting lost, or revisiting old wounds… All of that works great in theory, but the pace of this novel just made it excruciating.
Much to Ira’s chagrin. I am with you Ira. This day really turned into a cluster. And here is where I feel something was missing. The book is split into 3 parts. The first is all from Maggie’s POV and she is sympathetic and we are rooting for her and convinced that Ira is a bit of a grump. Then we get to part 2: Ira’s POV and the tables get turned a bit. Maggie isn’t as blameless as we once were led to believe. Ira is very sympathetic. We feel his frustration and start to root for him.
This is all great. Great, I tell you. I love the idea of one set of events or one conversation being filtered through two different points of view and people ending up disagreeing about what happened or what it meant etc.
But then… then we have part 3 and we are back in Maggie’s POV. It’s not a spoiler, but there is not part 4.
So it is unbalanced AND during part 3 even more of Maggie’s crappy behavior starts to show through but we don’t get the balance of Ira at the end which makes everything off-kilter, lopsided, and uncomfortable.
Plus, the way the story resolves leaves a lot to be desired.
Again, I like the idea of the plot, but I didn’t feel it was paced or executed well.
And as for character development? Again, one-sided to be sure, but there was a lot of depth to the characters, even to the son whose POV we never got. Anne Tyler can write characters… but honestly, none of these people are people I would want to spend any time with. Another big sin (at least according to me), none of them grew or changed. Maggie had a chance to evolve and make better choices, and I don’t trust that she did and will. I started out liking her and I ended up actively disliking her, not really caring about Ira and feeling heaps of sympathy for the child character who is introduced so very late in the story.
Atmosphere/Style: The atmosphere was well written. In fact, lots of the book was well written. I enjoyed Anne Tyler’s style. I liked her vocabulary and her little jokes. She excelled at Maggie’s stream of consciousness flight of fancy. She really got us into the heads of the characters. (I just disliked the characters to the point where it became distracting) The setting was well fleshed out and did a great job of putting us in the time and place of the story. It is not a modern book, not even contemporary, but that’s ok because it wasn’t trying to be evergreen. It was exactly what it set out to be: a slice of life, a day in the life, of two slightly older people who have a lot of unresolved drama and could benefit from heaps of therapy.
My last category is Enjoyment and I feel like you all can probably guess where I landed on this. Finishing it was more of a chore than a delight.
Sum up: This book would probably make a decent movie. It would be shorter, there could be a proper focus on the actual story and less meandering background characters and situations that didn’t really resolve or go anywhere. The premise of a couple dealing with things while on a road trip… is not new, but it could be done well with some major tweaks and some good casting. Oh, and they would have to actually deal with things instead of think about them for a while and then do absolutely nothing helpful. This book did not have a happy ending, it didn’t teach me anything new or cause me to think serious thoughts nor was it fun and fast reading.
No surprise here: I don’t recommend this book.