Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons (1988)

It’s the second Anne Tyler’s novel I read and I am just as conflicted by this one as with the previous one. I never thought I would argue that one day, but she might be too American for me. How can one be too American? I don’t mean to be polemic. Her novels just underline how much distance there is between Europe and the US. Not so much her plots, but her characters are very much an embodiment of the Americans (at least to my eyes), or rather a certain type of American people I don’t really relate to. I can’t imagine a single modern European novel with such characters in it, because I don’t think people in Europe are like that in real life, whereas I imagine and remember that some American people are just like Breathing Lessons protagonists. To her credit, I must say that Tyler’s characters are very true to life, so it’s just my fault if I can’t relate to them.

Breathing Lessons is a whole life summed up in the course of a day. Maggie and Ira Moran, a 50-ish couple from Baltimore, drives to a friend’s funeral, and on the road a lot of memories surface, all the more as Maggie wants to stop by to see her grandchild at her ex daughter-in-law’s.

Maggie is really scatterbrained and meddlesome and always trying to change other people’s lives, with disastrous results. Every time she’s stuck, she lies through her teeth with the best intentions, distorting the reality to fit her story and insisting so much that she ends up believing her own lies. I laughed with recognition when they stop at a service station cafe and Maggie ends up pouring out her heart to the waitress. But at times I found her so annoying that I heartily sided with her husband Ira, the patient, silent type who seems wiser, but ends up being so blunt and unnecessarily honest that he makes the matter even worse.

That’s this mix of blunt honesty, meddling, excessive good intentions – even to the point of seeming Pollyanna-ish, and innocence that make them so true… and so American to me. Meddlesome characters in European literature are always seen under a bad light or a sarcastic one. They don’t get away with it because they don’t respect the privacy of other people’s lives, so they’re transgressive, manipulative and even possibly evil.

There were pages of utter beauty that remain with me even days after finishing the book, and three passages in particular. If I have time, I’ll paste them here to share.

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3 thoughts on “Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons (1988)

  1. I wish I had taken better notes when I read Breathing Lessons because I remember feeling very ambivalent about it. I get frustrated with Tyler’s characters but I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why. I agree she manages to unearth some fundamental quirkiness about Americans, but there’s more than that. She has a particular perspective of America, seems to focus almost completely on one element of the American pysche…

  2. I must say I like Anne Tyler a lot, although I prefer her later novels to her earlier ones (with the exception of The Accidental Tourist). A friend of mine said that what he liked about her was that she made the impossible seem wholly plausible – and reading your post, I can see how that could be a solid cause for ambivalence too.

  3. I haven’t read Breathing Lessons, but your description reminds me of the Tyler book I HAVE read, which is Digging to America — that one deals with Americans and Americanness explicitly — it’s about immigration and culture clashes. She seems to have a lot to say about the national culture and attitudes. I hadn’t thought of her that way before.

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