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Breathing Lessons (Tyler)

Breathing Lessons
Anne Tyler, 1988
Penguin Group USA
338 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780425117743


Summary
Winner, 1989 Pulitzer Prize

Maggie and Ira Moran have been married for twenty-eight years, and it shows: in their quarrels, in their routines, in their ability to tolerate with affection each other's eccentricities. Maggie, a kooky, lovable meddler and an irrepressible optimist, wants nothing more than to fix her son's broken marriage. Ira is infuriatingly practical, a man "who should have married Ann Landers."

And what begins as a day trip to a funeral becomes an adventure in the unexpected. As Maggie and Ira navigate the riotous twists and turns, they intersect with an assorted cast of eccentrics—and rediscover the magic of the road called life and the joy of having somebody next to you to share the ride...bumps and all. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—October 25, 1941
Where—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Education—B.A., Duke University
Awards—Pulitzer Prize, 1989; National Book Critics Circle
  Award, 1986; PEN/Faulkner Award, 1983
Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland


Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. Breathing Lessons is Anne Tyler's eleventh novel; she has written eighteen (as of 2010). The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore. (From the publisher.)

More
Anne Tyler has had a very active imagination all her life. When she was a young girl, she would spend an hour or two after being put to bed every night fantasizing that she was a doctor. She imagined conversations with patients, and pictured their lives as she did so, considering both their illnesses and the intricacies of their backgrounds. She constructed little mental plays around these characters that she would whisper to herself in the dark -- much to the chagrin of her brother, with whom she shared a room. "[H]e used to call out to our parents, 'Anne's whispering again!'" she once told Barnes & Noble.com. As much as she may have vexed her brother, she also believes that these fantasies helped her to develop into the beloved, award-winning novelist she is today.

Tyler's work is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a genuine love of her characters, and a quirky sense of humor. Her public persona is characterized by its own quirks, as well. She refuses to grant face-to-face interviews. She has never publicly read from any of her books. She does not do book signings or tours. All of this has lent a certain mystique to her novels, although Tyler has said that her reluctance to become a public figure status is actually the result of simple shyness, not to mention her desire for her writing to speak for itself. Fortunately, Anne Tyler's work speaks with a clear, fully-realized voice that does not require unnecessary elucidation by the writer.

Tyler published her first novel If Morning Ever Comes in 1964, and that singular voice was already in place. This astute debut that tracks the self-realization of a young man named Ben Joe Hawkins displayed Tyler's characteristic wit and gentle eccentricity right off the bat. Harper's declared the novel "a triumph," and Tyler was on her way to creating an impressive catalog of novels chronicling the every day hopes, fears, dreams, failures, and victories of small-town Americans. Having come of age, herself, in rural North Carolina, Tyler had particular insight into the lives of her characters. Each novel was a little shimmering gem, winning her a devoted following and public accolades that more than compensated for her refusal to appear in public. Her novel Earthly Possessions, the story of a housewife who is taken hostage by a young man during a bank robbery, was released the same year she won an award for "literary excellence and promise of important work to come" from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The book also went on to become a television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff in 1999.

Fame
However, the most well-known adaptation of one of Tyler's novels arrived more than a decade earlier when The Accidental Tourist was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Geena Davis and William Hurt. Consequently, The Accidental Tourist is viewed by some as Tyler's signature novel, covering many of the writer's favorite themes: the push and pull of marriage, the appearance of a romantic eccentric, personal tragedy, and the quest to escape from the drudgery of routine. The Accidental Tourist won the National Book Critics Circle Award and hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list.

Three years later, Tyler received the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, which further explored themes of marriage and self-examination. Despite having won the prestigious Pulitzer, Tyler still refused to allow herself to be drawn into the spotlight. Quietly, contemplatively, she chose to continue publishing a sequence of uniformly fine novels, including Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and The Amateur Marriage.

A more recent novel, Digging to America (2006) reexamines many of her chief obsessions, while also possibly drawing upon a personal triumph—her marriage to Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi—and the tragedy of his death in 1997. The novel follows the relationship between two families, the Iranian Yazdans and the all-American Donaldsons, as they become closer and closer and affect each other deeper and deeper over a succession of years. Digging to America is arguably Tyler's deepest and most profound work to date. It also delivers more of her peculiar brand of humor, which will surely please her longtime fans, thrilled that she continues spinning tales with the trademark attention to character that has distinguished her stories ever since she was a little girl, whispering to herself in the dark. Tyler may have decided to remain in the dark and out of the public eye, but the stories she has to tell have shed more than their share of light on the lives of her readers. (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
[M]s.Tyler's spare, stripped writing style resembles that of the so-called minimalists...[but] she is unlike them because of the depth of her affections and the utter absence from her work of a fashionable contempt for life.... Ms. Tyler is at the top of her powers.
New York Times -Books of the Century (9/11/98)


In perhaps her most mainstream, accessible novel so far, Tyler spins a tale of marriage and middle-class lives, in an age when social standards and life expectations have gone askew. While she remains a brilliant observer of human nature, there is a subtle change here in Tyler's focus. Where before her protagonists were eccentric, sometimes slightly fantastical characters who came at the end to a sense of peace, if not happiness, Maggie Moran and her husband Ira are average, unexceptional, even somewhat drab; and outside of some small epiphanies, little is changed between them at the story's close. It's this very realism that makes the story so effective and moving. Taking place on one summer day, when Maggie and Ira drive from Baltimore to Pennsylvania to a funeral, with an accidental detour involving an old black man they pass on the road and a side trip to see their former daughter-in-law and their seven-year-old grandchild, the novel reveals the basic incompatibility of their 28-year marriage and the love that binds them together nonetheless. This is another typical Tyler union of opposites: Maggie is impetuous, scatterbrained, klutzy, accident prone and garrulous; Ira is self-contained, precise, dignified, aloof with, however, an irritating (or endearing ) habit of whistling tunes that betray his inner thoughts. Both feel that their children are strangers, that the generations are "sliding downhill,'' and that somehow they have gone wrong in a society whose values they no longer recognize. With irresistibly funny passages you want to read out loud and poignant insights that illuminate the serious business of sharing lives in an unsettling world, this is Tyler's best novel yet.
Publishers Weekly


Every reader knows a couple like the Morans. Maggie is a compassionate flibbertigibbet whose best intentions always backfire. Dour and sensible Ira, "born competent,'' Maggie thinks, "should have married Ann Landers.'' As they drive inexorably (with a few detours) toward the most comical funeral in recent fiction, Ira ponders his wasted life and the traffic. Maggie, meanwhile, is hatching a plot she thinks could reunite their son with his long-estranged wife and child, based on the evidence she has fabricated. Tyler's most entertaining novel yet, a love story in praise of marriage; essential for all fiction collections.
Library Journal



Discussion Questions 
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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