The title of Anne Tyler’s 1989 Pulitzer prize-winning novel refers to the lessons given to pregnant women to help cope with labour pains. As with many other themes in this novel, there is a second, subtler meaning – lessons in breathing are the lessons life teaches us. This is a novel about middle age, about being married through good times and bad, and about disappointment.
The story of the novel is simple. Ira and Maggie Moran travel from Baltimore to attend a funeral. In the course of the day events prompt memories which gradually tell the central tale of the novel, how their son Jesse married young and promptly separated from and divorced his wife. Maggie’s persistent attempts to interfere with her son’s life are well intentioned, but consistently disastrous. Ira resents her efforts to reconcile her son and daughter-in-law, believing them to be hopeless, and intervenes to sabotage them.
Maggie is an eccentric character, illogical, emotional, acting on the spur of the moment rather than in the considered, logical, approach Ira adopts. She speaks freely to strangers, a habit which irritates the reserved and taciturn Ira. Maggie has a lot of habits that irritate Ira. She works in an old people’s home, caring for the residents, and defines herself by her caring role, at work and at home. Her daughter’s imminent departure for college means she will soon have no-one other than her husband to look after at home. Ira on the other hand is a picture framer, a practical man who specialises in pinning things down, capturing them. His childhood dreams of becoming a doctor have been indefinitely deferred by the complexities of family life. Maggie main characteristic is that she is an incorrigible but incompetent meddler, not just in Jesse’s life, but wherever she can. As Ira explains:
“It’s Maggie’s weakness. She believes it’s all right to alter people’s lives. She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her point of view of them.”
Although Baltimore is on the east coast of the USA, the novel is firmly located in middle-America, a landscape of little league, shopping malls, used car lots and drive in movies. I admire the author’s decision to write a novel about the everyday. Middle aged people are often ignored in literature, and happily married couples hardly ever form the central figures in novels. Maggie and Ira may irritate one another persistently, and may dream of escape, but their relationship is still founded on a comfortable love and companionship.
Tyler is a thoughtful, considered writer. ’Breathing Lessons’ is full of convincing portraits, is cleverly structured, and at the end, genuinely touching, in a small-town way. But equally, it is slight. Maggie is delusional; and never fails to ignore the lessons of the past. Her plan to re-unite Jesse and her daughter-in-law is doomed from the outset, and Ira’s intervention only serves to cut short what would otherwise have been a painful, half-hearted attempt at reconciliation. I believed in the central relationship, I’m just not convinced I actually came to care.