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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 (see below)
Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland


Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic. She has published 20 novels, the best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988). All three were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the third won it.

She has also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012 she was awarded The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. She is recognized for her fully developed characters, her "brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail" (New York Times), and her "rigorous and artful style" and "astute and open language" (also, New York Times). While many of her characters have been described as quirky or eccentric, she has managed to make them seem real through skillfully fleshing out their inner lives in great depth.

Her subject in all her novels has been the American family and marriage: the boredom and exasperating irritants endured by partners, children, siblings, parents; the desire for freedom pulling against the tethers of attachments and conflicted love; the evolution over time of familial love and sense of duty. Tyler celebrates unremarkable Americans and the ordinary details of their everyday lives. Because of her style and subject matter, she has been compared to John Updike, Jane Austen, and Eudora Welty, among others.

Childhood
The eldest of four children, she was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father, Lloyd Parry Tyler, was an industrial chemist and her mother, Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker. Both her parents were Quakers who were very active with social causes in the Midwest and the South.  Her family lived in a succession of Quaker communities in the South until they settled in 1948 in a Quaker commune in Celo, in the mountains of North Carolina near Burnsville.

The Celo Community settlement was founded by conscientious objectors and members of the liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends, with community labor needs shared by the residents. Tyler lived there from age 7 through 11 and helped her parents and others with caring for livestock and organic farming. While she did not attend formal public school in Celo, lessons were taught in art, carpentry, and cooking in homes and in other subjects in a tiny school house. Her early informal training was supplemented by correspondence school.

Her first memory of her own creative story-telling was of crawling under the bed covers at age 3 and "telling myself stories in order to get to sleep at night." Her first book at age 7 was a collection of drawings and stories about "lucky girls...who got to go west in covered wagons." Her favorite book as a child was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. Tyler acknowledges that this book, which she read many times during this period of limited access to books, had a profound influence on her, showing how the years flowed by, people altered, and nothing could ever stay the same."

This early perception of changes over time is a theme that reappears in many of her novels decades later, just as The Little House itself appears in her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler also describes reading Little Women 22 times as a child. When the Tyler family left Celo after four years to move to Raleigh, NC, 11-year-old Anne had never attended public school and never used a telephone. This unorthodox upbringing enabled her to view "the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise."

Raleigh, North Carolina
It also meant that Tyler felt herself to be an outsider in the public schools she attended in Raleigh, a feeling that has followed her most of her life. She believes that this sense of being an outsider has contributed to her becoming a writer:

I believe that any kind of setting-apart situation will do [to become a writer]. In my case, it was emerging from the commune…and trying to fit into the outside world.

Despite her lack of public schooling prior to age 11, Anne entered school academically well ahead of most of her classmates in Raleigh. With access now to libraries, she discovered Eudora Welty, Gabriel García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Welty remains one of her favorite writers, and she credits Welty with showing her that books could be about the everyday details of life, not just about major events.

During her years at N. B. Broughton High School in Raleigh, she was inspired and encouraged by a remarkable English teacher, Phyllis Peacock. Peacock had previously taught the writer Reynolds Price, under whom Tyler would later study at Duke University. She would also later teach the writer Armistead Maupin. Seven years after high school, Tyler would dedicate her first published novel to "Mrs. Peacock, for everything you’ve done."

Education
Tyler won a full scholarship to Duke University, which her parents urged her to go accept it because they also needed money for the education of her three younger brothers. At Duke, Tyler enrolled in Reynolds Price's first creative writing class, which also included a future poet, Fred Chappell. Price was most impressed with the sixteen-year-old Tyler, describing her as "frighteningly mature for 16," "wide-eyed," and "an outsider." Years later Price would describe Tyler as "one of the best novelists alive in the world,… who was almost as good a writer at 16 as she is now."

While an undergraduate, Tyler published her short story "Laura" in the Duke literary journal Archive, for which she won the newly created Anne Flexner award for creative writing. She wrote many short stories, one of which impressed Reynolds Price so that he later stated that it was the "most finished, most accomplished short story I have ever received from an undergraduate in my thirty years of teaching." "The Saints in Caesar’s Household" was published in Archive also and won her a second Anne Flexner award. This short story led to her meeting Diarmuid Russell, to whom Price had sent it with kudos. Russell, who was an agent for both Reynolds Price and for Tyler’s "crowning influence" Eudora Welty, later became Tyler’s agent.

Tyler majored in Russian Literature at Duke—not English—and graduated in 1961, at age 19, having been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. With her Russian Literature background she received a fellowship to graduate school in Slavic Studies at Columbia University although she left after a year without her master's degree. She returned to Duke where she got a job in the library as a Russian bibliographer. It was there that she met Taghi Modarressi, a resident in child psychiatry in Duke Medical School and a writer himself, and they were married a year later (1963).

Early writing
While working at the Duke library—before and after marrying Modarressi—Tyler continued to write short stories, which appeared in The New Yoker, Saturday Evening Post, and Harpers. She also started work on her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, eventually published 1964, followed by The Tin Can Tree in 1965. Years later she disowned both of these novels, as well as many of the short stories she wrote during this period, going so far as to say she "would like to burn them." She feels that most of this early work suffers from the lack of thorough character development and her failure to rework material repeatedly.

After the birth of two children (1965 and 1967), followed by a move from Montreal, Canada, to Baltimore in the U.S., Tyler had little time or energy for writing. She published nothing from 1965 to 1970. By 1970, however, she began writing again and published three more novels by 1974—A Slipping-Down Life, The Clock Winder, and Celestial Navigation. In her own opinion, her writing improved considerably during this period; with her children entering school, she was able to devote more time—and focus more intensely—than at any time since her undergraduate days.

National recognition
With Celestial Navigation, Tyler began to get wider recognition. Morgan's Passing (1980) won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction and was nominated for both the American Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

With her next novel (her ninth), Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler truly arrived as a recognized artist in the literary world. (She considers Homesick her best work.) Her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1985. It was also made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. The popularity of this well-received film further increased the growing public awareness of her work. Her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 and was Time magazine’s "Book of the Year." It was adapted into a 1994 TV movie, as eventually were four other of her novels.

Since her Pulitzer Prize with Breathing Lessons, Tyler has written 9 more novels, all of favorably reviewed, many Book of the Month Club Main Selections and New York Times Bestsellers.

Analysis
In Tyler’s own words, the characters are the driving forces behind the stories and the starting point for her writing:

I do make a point of writing down every imaginable facet of my characters before I begin a book, trying to get to know them so I can figure out how they’ll react in any situation…..My reason for writing now is to live lives other than my own, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper….till I reach the center of those lives.

The magic of her novels starts with her ability to create those characters in the reader’s mind through the use of remarkably realistic details. The late Canadian author Carol Shields, writing about Tyler's characters, observes:

Tyler has always put her characters to work. Their often humble or eccentric occupations, carefully observed and threaded with humor, are tightly sewn to the other parts of their lives, offering them the mixed benefit of tedium and consolation, as well as a lighted stage for the unfolding of their dramatic selves. She also allows her men and women an opportunity for redemption.

Tyler has clearly spelled out the importance of her characters to her stories: "As far as I’m concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too."

Stylistically, Tyler's writing is difficult to categorize or label. Novelist Cathleen Schine describes how her "style without a style" manages to pull the reader into the story:

So rigorous and artful is the style without a style, so measured and delicate is each observation, so complex is the structure and so astute and open the language, that the reader can relax, feel secure in the narrative and experience the work as something real and natural.

The San Francisco Chronicle made a similar point: "One does not so much read a Tyler novel as visit it.

While Tyler herself does not like to think of her novels in terms of themes, numerous reviewers and scholars have noted the importance of family and marriage relationships to her characters and stories. Reviewing Noah's Compass, New York Times' Mitchiko Kakutani noted that

The central concern of most of this author’s characters has always been their need to define themselves in terms of family—the degree to which they see themselves as creatures shaped by genetics, childhood memories and parental and spousal expectations, and the degree to which they are driven to embrace independent identities of their own.

Tyler is not without her critics. The most common criticism is that her works are "sentimental," "sweet," and "charming and cosy." Even Kakutani has also occasionally bemoaned a "cloying cuteness," noting that "her novels—with their eccentric heroes, their homespun details, their improbable, often heartwarming plots—have often flirted with cuteness." In her own defense, Tyler has said,

For one thing I think it is sort of true. I would say piss and vinegar for [Philip] Roth and for me milk and cookies. I can’t deny it…. [However] there’s more edge under some of my soft language than people realize.

Also, because almost all of Tyler’s work covers the same territory—family and marriage relationships—and are located in the same setting, she has come under criticism for being repetitive and formulaic.

Tyler’s advice to beginning writers:

They should run out and buy the works of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who studied the meaning of gesture in personal interactions. I have cause to think about Erving Goffman nearly every day of my life, every time I see people do something unconscious that reveals more than they’ll ever know about their interiors. Aren’t human beings intriguing? I could go on writing about them forever."

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/10/2015.)

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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