Sunday, April 10, 2011

Breathing Lessons (1988)

It's tempting to riff off the title of the first novel that Anne Tyler wrote after her most successful, The Accidental Tourist, and talk about how it reads as if Tyler has had her breath taken away, as though she needs to take a few deep breaths to get herself in hand once again—as though she were monumentally distracted. This is all speculation, but movie production for the adaptation of Tourist must have been underway as she wrote this, and in general Tyler was starting to come into her own as a Famous Author, her good fortune there entirely deserved. But Breathing Lessons lacks the usual expansiveness of her work, the easy way that it enters into the lives of its struggling lower-middle-class characters and simply occupies their emotional centers, moving through and across their preoccupations and priorities with tenderness and pathos, but as well with a flinty unwillingness to deny any part of their existence, particularly the fantasies they use to survive, however unpalatable or pathetic it might make them seem. Part of this effect of tightening up is the more constricted focus Tyler has chosen for the action here, confined to a single day's road trip taken by the middle-aged couple who live at the center of this novel, Maggie and Ira Moran. The occasion is a funeral for one of Maggie's oldest friend, which then becomes the excuse to visit the town where their only son's ex-wife has repaired to raise their only grandchild, which is on the way. Maggie and Ira are not on particularly good terms with her—not particularly bad, either, but definitely estranged, and strained. As with many of Tyler's characters, so often the women, Maggie has a tendency to prattle on, to idealize and make up glowing and sentimental versions of the past, which the taciturn men in their lives, here chiefly Ira, know are delusions. Nonetheless, these men in Tyler's tales derive a good deal of emotional sustenance from these women, as the women do in turn from their perception that they are living with a kindly listening ear, and therein lies the heartbreaking pathos of an Anne Tyler story in a nutshell. From there it's just a matter of seeing how she works out the details, and as always the pleasure is in the interactions between people, the patience and impatience they show for one another, the things they choose to talk about and not talk about, the way they show love and accept love, or don't. Breathing Lessons is not the place to start with Tyler. But if you already know her well, it's an interesting enough minor effort.

In case it's not at the library.

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