Artis-Ann , Features Writer

On The Road Again: Breathing Lessons By Anne Tyler

First edition cover
First edition cover
Coincidences are strange; on the radio the other day, I heard a reference to Deer Lick, home to who knows? I’m afraid I was driving and didn’t concentrate on the music but I was struck by the name which I had never heard of before. The same day, this author was recommended to me: Anne Tyler, whose gently witty and humorous novel Breathing Lessons takes a journey from Baltimore to, of all places, Deer Lick. Small world.

Covering just a single day, the novel tells the story of Maggie and her long-suffering husband, Ira, a middle-aged Baltimore couple, who set out one morning to attend the funeral of the husband of Maggie’s best friend, Serena, in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, some ninety miles away.

Maggie and Ira Moran have been married for twenty-eight years – and it shows: in their quarrels, their routines, their ability to affectionately tolerate each other’s eccentricities. Maggie, a lovable meddler and an unswerving optimist, wants nothing more than to fix her son’s broken marriage. Ira is infuriatingly practical – and enjoys a game of Solitaire.

Tyler captures the exasperation and irritability that we can feel only for someone with whom we are very comfortable and love very much; she uses that to remind us why we need someone along with us for the ride we call life.

Maggie and Ira have two children: Jesse, a drifting dreamer with unrealistic fantasies of rock stardom, a failed marriage behind him and a young daughter with whom he has little or no contact; and Daisy, their overachieving daughter, about to enter college but who, despite her intelligence, seems to be anxious and self-critical, unable to find any pleasure in her life.

Tyler captures the humour in the everyday, and, if we are honest, we can all hear echoes of ourselves in some of the comments. She has an extraordinary insight into marriage and family and applies it with genuine feeling.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first concentrates on the journey undertaken by Maggie and Ira to the funeral. The journey is not easy, especially given that Maggie has not only forgotten to bring the map but also the directions. Funerals make you reflect and in between their minor disagreements, the author focusses on how Maggie and Ira met. Then, the old school reunion begins as Maggie meets her oldest friend, Serena, ‘who defied the stodgy times they all grew up in’, the Barley twins, her old flame Boris Drumm, and the unlikely named Durwood Clegg. The funeral service is supposed to echo Serena and Max’s wedding, with the same guests performing the same songs they sang all those years before – without warning!

Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler
There is a proven correlation between music and memory; it stirs the emotion and the musical references Tyler employs are deliberate. Maggie realises that what Ira whistles to himself tells her what’s on his mind. The songs performed at the funeral, from ‘True Love’ to ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’, reflect the theme which resonates throughout the novel.

Maggie, who’s got an (over)active imagination, has also planned to work in a visit to Fiona, her ex-daughter-in-law, and her grandchild. She secretly wants Fiona and her son, Jesse, to get back together again. She thinks, rightly or wrongly, that they still love each other, and that it is their pride and constant bickering which have kept them apart.

Odd characters punctuate the book, not least in Part Two which sees Ira and Maggie driving towards Cartwheel, the home of their granddaughter and her mother. En route, they meet up with Daniel Otis. Maggie is forever ‘inviting people into their lives’ and Daniel Otis provides another diversion, both literally and metaphorically.

If you have ever taken a lengthy car trip with anyone, you will appreciate the atmosphere and the dynamics of Ira and Maggie, alone in the small space a car affords. We learn much about their marriage on this car trip. There’s a trust between them which makes the relationship warm and comfortable, despite its difficulties.

Tyler understands people and gives a masterclass in characterisation. She knows how families work; the novel is a perfect example of Tyler's gift for presenting ‘normal’ people as flawed, annoying, even exasperating, yet still endearing.

Part Three centres around ex daughter-in-law, Fiona and granddaughter Leroy (they had expected a boy and hadn’t planned any names for a girl). Meddlesome Maggie manages to persuade Fiona to come back to Baltimore with them to see Jesse who, Maggie assures Fiona, has never got over her. Maggie’s mission in life is to interfere in the lives of those she loves, convinced she knows what will make them happy – cue, ‘ouch’!

Just when you want to hit Maggie or shout, ‘for crying out loud’, there is a moment of tenderness which makes you care for her all over again. She’s dippy, for want of a better word, but in reality she just wants things to be right and between the tears and the humour, you can’t help having sympathy for her. Tyler has affection for her characters, however flawed, and pokes gentle fun at the homely, the naïve, the genuine, the ordinary – if anyone can define the word.

There is no grand sweeping statement in this novel; it depicts normality with humour and sensitivity, creating something we can all recognise.

Breathing Lessons is published by Vintage