Sunday, September 06, 2020

the last book I read

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

Maggie Moran is approaching fifty, with long-standing attachments to her husband Ira and their family house in Baltimore. She and Ira have two grown-up kids, Jesse and Daisy, both a bit on the feckless side, who drift in and out between the house and other more self-sufficient accommodation.

As we join Maggie she is gearing up for a road trip to Pennsylvania for the funeral of the husband of her old college friend Serena. During the build-up to setting off for the trip we learn a few things about Maggie and Ira: he is an undemonstrative, methodical man who runs a local picture-framing business which he inherited from his father. His father isn't dead, though - no, he just decided that once Ira was of an age to take over the business, he (Dad) would declare himself too much of an invalid to continue running it, hand it over and retire upstairs to his armchair for the next several decades. This was done without much consultation with Ira, who nonetheless felt obliged to abandon thoughts of a medical career and assume full responsibility for his father and two sisters, both of whom suffer from varying mental afflictions which make them unable to live independent lives. Maggie, meanwhile, is somewhat more scatty, inclined to well-intentioned meddling in other people's lives, in particular those of her son Jesse, his estranged wife Fiona and their daughter Leroy. She is also an utter liability behind the wheel of a car, as we discover when she picks up the family car from a garage and promptly has an altercation with a truck which results in a section of bumper getting torn off.

Ira, evidently well-used to his wife's driving habits, takes the wheel for the trip to the funeral. When they arrive it transpires that Serena has had the somewhat eccentric idea of, instead of something more dirge-y and mournful, having the musical accompaniment to the funeral ceremony be a re-run of the songs from her wedding, and, moreover, sung by the original singers, mostly the funeral attendees, including Maggie and Ira. Ira refuses point-blank to be involved, but Maggie gives it her best shot. Back at the house for the wake Serena digs out some old movie footage of the wedding, and, possibly inspired by a sighting of her younger self, Maggie persuades Ira that a quickie in one of the bedrooms might be the thing to do. Disturbed by Serena in the fumbly early stages of this, they decide that this might be a good time to make their excuses, leave, and start the drive back to Baltimore. 

Ira is hoping for a speedy return home and a chance to put his feet up, but it turns out that Maggie has had an idea: why not make the shortish detour to where Fiona now lives (at her mother's house) and visit her and Leroy? Once they arrive and find Fiona and Leroy in but her mother out, Maggie decides to push her luck a bit further: why don't Fiona and Leroy come and stay for a couple of nights? She can get Jesse to come over and they can have a nice little reunion and - hey, who knows? - maybe rekindle their old relationship. To her mild surprise, Fiona agrees, even when her mother returns and takes a dimmer view of the idea.

So they return to Baltimore, Maggie gets on with preparing dinner, and eventually Jesse turns up to join them. While he seems genuinely pleased to see Fiona and Leroy, it soon becomes clear that the picture Maggie has painted for Fiona (and perhaps even convinced herself is true) of Jesse still pining for her and obsessively keeping mementoes of her under his pillow, isn't really true. Jesse has been playing with his metal band, setting himself up in his new apartment and getting through a series of girlfriends perfectly happily, thanks very much.

So after Jesse and Fiona have both done their storming-out-of-the-house scenes, Maggie and Ira are left alone together. No time to reflect too closely on what's just happened, though, still less the advisability of trying to interfere in other people's lives - Maggie and Ira have another road trip to contemplate the next day, delivering daughter Daisy to college. Perhaps she will be more receptive to some motherly guidance?

Breathing Lessons is the third Anne Tyler novel to appear on this blog, after A Patchwork Planet and Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, and deviates very little from the general structure of the previous two (and indeed most of Tyler's oeuvre): Baltimore setting, family drama with occasional moments of quirky and/or bittersweet comedy, very little in the way of rude thrusting assertiveness, guns, or liberal use of the c-word. I think the secret of which book or books you find you really like depends less on the plot details (since the level of variation is pretty low) and more on whether you find that you click with the central characters or not. As it happens I found Maggie generally slightly irritating rather than endearingly well-intentioned, and moreover (the slightly incongruous interlude in Serena's bedroom aside) somewhat prematurely aged in outlook for someone who is meant to be younger than me. You may recall I had the same issue with the central protagonist of Hotel Du Lac

So while this isn't my favourite Tyler novel (that'd probably be A Patchwork Planet) it's still impeccably well-written and has craftily well-hidden depths. What the hell do I know, though, because Breathing Lessons is the Tyler novel that the Pulitzer committee felt moved to bestow the Pulitzer Prize for fiction on, in 1989. Previous Pulitzer winners in this list include, in no particular order, Foreign Affairs, The Road, Independence Day, Gilead, A Thousand Acres, Beloved, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. Breathing Lessons also appears in this Guardian best-novels-EVER list from 2015, at number 96, though it should be understood that the list is in ascending chronological order of publication rather than order of perceived merit. Other novels on that list which have featured on this blog include The Great Gatsby, Tropic Of Cancer, At Swim-Two-Birds, The Grapes Of Wrath (again), Under The Volcano, The Catcher In The Rye, Lolita, On The Road, Midnight's Children and Amongst Women.

1 comment:

Emma said...

I read Breathing Lessons a few years back, and liked it. Didn't know it had won the Pulitzer though.