Breathing Lessons

by Anne Tyler

Hardcover, 1988



Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1988), Edition: 1st trade, 345 pages


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 Trade Paperback edition."

User reviews

LibraryThing member 1morechapter
Breathing Lessons has been on my tbr list for ages not only because it won the Pulitzer Prize, but also because I’m an Anne Tyler fan. While I enjoyed it, I’m always of the mindset that a prize-winning book should be in the 4 1/2 to 5 star range for me, and this one was slightly under that with a 4 star rating. An interesting note is that The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize as well.

The story takes place in a single day and doesn’t have much of a plot, but the characters are so believable that that didn’t really bother me. Maggie and Ira Moran seemed like a very real couple to me. The novel centers on their marriage but also branches out into Maggie’s relationship with her friend Serena and the couple’s relationships with their children and grandchild. In the novel Maggie is portrayed as a flighty woman who just wants everyone to get along and quite frequently tries to encourage reconciliation between injured parties. Ira is somewhat aloof but has a habit of whistling tunes that betray his inner mindset. He can be blunt at times and doesn’t appreciate Maggie’s well-intentioned meddling. However, in the end we are left wondering which of the two has really done the most damage by his or her actions.

I could identify with Maggie’s wish to be more involved in her children’s and granchild’s lives. I also identified with some of Ira’s issues and their issues as a married couple. I think almost everyone would know a couple like Maggie and Ira Moran. Perhaps that is what Tyler does so well, though. She brings those ‘typical’ characters to life in a way that makes us wish we could continue the relationship with them even after the story is finished.
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LibraryThing member agnesmack
I think I must have missed something with this book. It won the Pulitzer and was also the Time Book of the Year for 1989. I really don't get it. I mean, it was fine. It was just the story of an average married couple, traveling to a funeral and back. Nothing terribly exciting happens. The characters were completely forgettable and felt really cut and dry for me. Not a lot of depth.

Overall, I didn't get bored or annoyed while reading the book, but it left pretty much no impact on me.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
This was an uneven read for me. I had a hard time engaging with it from the get-go but eventually settled into the story and the writing (and the very dry humor throughout). What was frustrating was the experience of feeling simultaneously sorry for and infuriated by the two main characters, Maggie and Ira Moran. They are a middle-aged couple driving to a funeral, with a few detours along the way. It’s a portrait of a marriage and of a woman - Maggie - who struggles to reconcile her idealistic views with the realities of her life. She tries to engineer and manipulate situations into what she thinks they should be but always with the best of intentions. In this way, with this tension of a good person acting in frustrating ways, Tyler creates a very real character, one you want to take by the shoulders and shake and then give a big hug. It’s a worthy and ultimately satisfying read, though not a flashy one.… (more)
LibraryThing member CharlesBoyd
While I enjoyed this novel and there was much good about it, it seemed a bit lightweight to me. Not a bad novel, but not deserving of a Pulitzer Prize.
LibraryThing member DowntownLibrarian
It's hard to go wrong with Anne Tyler.
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
From the book jacket: Everyone knows a couple like the Morans. Maggie, with her scatterbrained ways and her just slightly irritating – but good-hearted – attempts to make everything right for everyone.... And Ira, infinitely patient, who is addicted to solitaire and who whistles out popular tunes, the only barometer of his moods. They’ve learned all there is to know about each other ... two ordinary lives in a comfortably routine marriage. But on the road to a friend’s funeral, they make some unexpected detours – and discover how extraordinary their ordinary lives really are. ..

My reactions
I’ve had this on my TBR for ages, and just never got to it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long, but then again, maybe my own years of marriage help me better understand Maggie and Ira’s relationship – with each other, with their children, parents, co-workers, neighbors and friends.

I love the way Tyler reveals her characters to the reader. Their actions – small and large – and statements show the reader who these people are. Their hopes, dreams, frustrations, and regrets become evident over the course of the novel. I am irritated by Maggie, and yet I love her. Who doesn’t want things to work out, to see his child happy, or her spouse succeed? Who doesn’t appreciate those small tokens of affection, or get irritated by another person’s unconscious habit? I want to shake Ira, and yet I love his patient forebearance, and that he still tries to please Maggie.

Some years ago a young teen who had just read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet asked me, “Do you think you can fall in love at fourteen?” My answer: “Falling in love is easy. Loving someone is more challenging … especially when he can’t find the dishwasher though it’s right there under the counter where he leaves the dirty dishes.” Ira and Maggie have learned to look past “the dishes” and love one another anyway. And I love them.

Their lives may be ordinary; the novel is anything but.
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LibraryThing member CatieN
When the book begins, Maggie and Ira Moran are headed off to the funeral of Max, Serena's husband. Serena is Maggie's best friend from childhood. Maggie and Ira are 48 and 50 respectively and have been married for 28 years and have two children, Jesse and Daisy. I know. It all sounds predictable and boring, but this book was anything but that. Maggie is the queen of optimism and manipulation (but in the most loving way). Ira is a practical, no-nonsense, face-reality kind of guy. So Maggie gets them into situations and Ira gets them out of situations. The book covers just one day in their life but also flashes back to how they got together and also their children's lives, particularly Jesse's marriage to Fiona and the birth of their daughter, Leroy, and then Jesse and Fiona's divorce. Maggie is convinced Jesse and Fiona should get back together and maniplulations ensue, some humorous, some sad. Parts of the book were laugh-out-loud funny, especially the funeral sequence. Wonderful read! Anne Tyler at her best.… (more)
LibraryThing member weird_O
Maggie Moran, a late-40s mother of two, is often the bain of her family and friends—and even herself—in Anne Tyler's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel [Breathing Lessons]. Maggie is also the bain of many would-be readers of the book; witness the number of LTers who ditched or panned the book because they can't stand Maggie. I won't say I liked her, but I followed her path of misconception, misguidance, mischief, and mayhem all the way to the end, and I am glad I did. A very fine accomplishment, Ms. Tyler. Ordinary people doing their ordinary things are worth a few hours of your time. If you invest some time, you may discover that neither the people nor the things are all that ordinary.

Here's the setup: Maggie is married to Ira, a man who had dreams of doing medical research but now runs a small picture-framing shop. Maggie wanted nothing more than to assist in a nursing home, and that's what she does. Daughter Daisy is intense, capable, but curiously estranged from family; she practically lives with a friend whose mother Maggie calls Mrs. Perfect. Son Jesse is a talent-free loser, a high-school dropout half-heartedly pursuing fame and fortune as a rock performer. He got a girl named Fiona pregnant, married her, and, less than a year after the birth of their daughter, was divorced by her.

Nothing special about the Morans (though Tyler does seem to be signaling us by giving them that name). The shop Ira runs was started by his father Sam who lives in the apartment above it with his two damaged and dependent daughters (Ira's sisters). Upon Ira's high school graduation, Sam announced that he had a heart ailment; Ira would have to take over the shop to support his father and sisters. Partly as a consequence, the author tells us, Ira was "fifty years old and had never accomplished one single act of consequence.''

For her part, Maggie's been belittled by her own mother as well as her daughter. ''How have you let things get so common?'' her mother had once demanded, oblivous to the fact that, though her father was a lawyer, her husband was a garage-door installer. Then not long ago, Daisy asked, "Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?''

The story recounts a single day in Maggie and Ira's life, devoted to a round trip from Baltimore to a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, just off Route 1. Maggie's best friend from high school is holding a memorial service for her husband, now dead from cancer. As she starts her car, the radio comes on, tuned to an AM call-in show, and she hears a familiar voice, a caller, telling the host that she first had "married for love" but would now—next weekend—be marrying "for security." Maggie "hears" Fiona admitting she still loves Jesse but that she's marrying someone else in a week. Not much time for Maggie to act!

All her life, what Maggie has wanted to do is help people, to ease friction, smooth the bumps, bring people together, help them to be just as good as she "sees" them being. ''It's Maggie's weakness," Ira explains. "She believes it's all right to alter people's lives. She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her point of view of them.''
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LibraryThing member screamingbanshee
This book creeps up on you. Like a movie that's dull in the beginning, then when it's all over all too soon, you go "Why can't all movies be that simple and that beautiful?" This is storytelling at its simplest and finest.
LibraryThing member tikilights
The whole story is one day in the life of Maggie and Ira Moran. A day that started out about going to a friend's husband's funeral branches out when they head home into many other pit stops and the rememberance of their big moments in life.

Tyler has a gift for writing about everyday people and making their lives seem relevant and relatable. I loved this story because there were no real great changes or revelations, just life continuing on and trying to find meaning from it all. The characters all have their quirks and flaws, yet they are very endearing, and as a reader I had empathy for these people.… (more)
LibraryThing member jonesli
Maggie Moran is a well meaning wife and mother with a big heart who seems to cause chaos at every turn. She loves her husband Ira, son Jesse and daughter Daisy, but Ira seems indifferent, Jesse has problems of his own, and Daisy, who is about to begin college, is so independent that Maggie thinks she doesn’t need her any more. Jesse is father of Leroy and husband of Fiona, who Maggie is desperately trying to get back together for their daughter’s sake, but sometimes things are just not meant to be, which doesn’t stop her from trying to push them together every chance she gets.

The entire book takes place in a one day time frame as Maggie and Ira are driving to her high school friend’s husband’s funeral. Maggie and Ira get on each other’s nerves during the road trip and each reminisces about life events that brought them to the place they are today. This book is a delightfully funny and honest portrayal of how people, especially those with grown children look back on their lives and imagine various what if scenarios, for example, what if Ira had pursued his dream of becoming a doctor, and what if Maggie had married her first serious boyfriend. Although, sometimes it is fun to look back on your life and imagine what could have been it can also make you thankful for what you do have, even if may seem ordinary to others. This is a realistic portrayal of how spouses can get on each others nerves, children can drive us crazy, etc. but we do love and appreciate them.

I enjoyed reading this book and there were parts that honestly did make me laugh out loud.
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LibraryThing member nancenwv
I had a glimpse of the humor of Maggie's character in the very beginning but after that I found this book suffocating. It doesn't let enough light in to let the characters breathe - the title is oddly suiting. The main character quickly lost her charm and became very irritating to me as Tyler micro-focusd on her every thought and action.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattrutherford
Rich characterization. Lightweight treatment, but it's the style I like: deep characters with minimal plot development. Whole novel takes place in 1 day - I like the quirky characters too.
LibraryThing member otterley
A day in the life of Maggie, a very ordinary woman, and her very ordinary life, family and friends. Tyler digs deceptively deep into the realities of life, its deceptions and compromises, its joys and its continuity through family, friends and sometimes just plain old perseverence. As with Maggie, the book is wiser than perhaps it seems at face value.… (more)
LibraryThing member RobinDawson
This is a very readable book and I can't remember when a book has left me laughing so much. Anne Tyler has some very acute percpetions about marraige and family relationships....but I'm surprised it won the Pulitzer. It just have the qualities one expects for that prize.
LibraryThing member moonshineandrosefire
Maggie and Ira Moran have been married for twenty-eight years and it shows. Maggie is an easy-going free spirit: impetuous, reckless and unpredictable. Her husband Ira is Maggie's polar opposite: amazingly competent, infuriatingly practical and seemingly infallible. Yet, despite all the countless petty squabbles, annoying routines and various personal eccentricities experienced in their life together, Maggie and Ira have managed to make their marriage work for almost thirty years.

Maggie considers herself to be a romantic matchmaker of sorts. Her life's ultimate mission is to unite people and bring couples together; whether they want to be connected or not. Ira secretly wonders if he should have married Ann Landers. In truth, Maggie is a meddler - a well-meaning meddler, yes, but a meddler nonetheless. She is a soft and loving person; who is determined to see only the innate goodness and limitless potential in the people she loves.

On a particularly hot summer day, the couple is driving to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania - ninety miles from their home in Baltimore - to attend the funeral of Maggie's best friend's husband. During the course of that journey, with its several unexpected detours along the way - into the lives of old friends and fully grown children, into fond memories of the past and valiant, if misguided, attempts to rearrange the present - the entire intimate story of a marriage is revealed. All the expectations, the disappointments; the way children can create storms within a family; the way that wife and husband can fall in love with each other all over again; the way that everything - and nothing - changes.

When I first started reading this book, I was expecting it to be relatively uneventful; even slightly boring. However, the story really was very interesting to me. I have always enjoyed reading Anne Tyler's work - in my opinion, she always does an excellent job with characterization and plotting. This was just such a book - a quick and easy read for me; pleasant and poignant, and filled with intricately familiar and well-developed characters. I give this book an A+!
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LibraryThing member lizchris
I like Anne Tyler but found this one hard to plough through. Rarely have I come across such an annoying central character as Maggie. I got so cross with her as she kept on meddling with other people's lives, and always getting caught out. Some might view it as a masterly characterisation of an under-achieving woman who feels her life ebbing away from her, but she just bugged me.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I wasn't very taken with the novel at first. Maggie and her bickering with her husband, Ira, exasperated me--as it did her husband. But his affection for her was evident by the end of the first chapter, and by then I felt a similar emotion for this middle-aged American Emma. Like Austen's Emma, Maggie does real damage with her interference--but does have heart.

The story was studded by flashbacks in the midst of this tale of a day in which Maggie and her husband of 28 years travel to the funeral of the husband of Maggie's best friend Serena--and take a detour to visit their son's divorced wife and their granddaughter. Parts from Maggie's perspective bookend a part from Ira's point of view, forming a meditation upon love and marriage. I remember first being charmed by the story of Maggie's crush on one of the nursing home patients where she's an aide. She fantasizes about this courtly man at times when she's feeling sour about her marriage, only to realize that what she loves in the man is that he's like Ira. Maggie is meddlesome and ditzy, her husband tactless and aloof, but both of them are good people, and the novel is filled with sharp insights and warm humor.

For all that, I didn't lose my heart to the book, and unless I love the other two novels in the omnibus edition I own more (Accidental Tourist and Searching for Caleb) I doubt it'll remain much longer on my bookshelf. That isn't the fault of the book, really but it's just this isn't quite the kind of book I love. It never made me spellbound with the prose, or tempted me to dogear a page because of an unforgettable line, there's no twist. These aren't extraordinary people or ordinary people faced with the extraordinary, or set in an exotic land of long ago. They're just the people next door--written with insight and affection, but not quite what I look for in a novel. Rather this is what might be called "domestic drama." A The Corrections without the literary pretentiousness of style, and much more likeable characters.
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LibraryThing member suztales
I have owned this book for a long time. When i picked it up a couple of weeks ago, I assumed I would be reading it for the second time. But I didn't recognize anything -- not the characters, not the story, not the time and place. Perhaps I started it once but didn't finish it. That would be understandable because I did not find it an enjoyable read. I couldn't help being irritated by Maggie every time she opened her mouth. We all have times when we wish we could "fix something" but Maggie wanted to fix everything and everyone in her world. Distressed that her son and daughter-in-law had broken up and her granddaughter Leroy was growing up without her, she sets out one day to revive their marriage. Her husband Ira has no love for their son Jesse and makes no bones about it, which complicates her task. Poor Maggie -- a hopeless busy body with a big heart. At times Ira seems not to really care about anyone except his aging father and his two dysfunctional sisters. He shows more compassion and understanding for Maggie in the last two pages than anywhere else in the story. But even this did not redeem the plot line nor leave the reader feeling anything but let down. Endings are difficult to write, but I have always felt they should be either happy, or hopelessly emotionally sad. Breathing Lessons did not leave me feeling either one.… (more)
LibraryThing member kattepusen
I liked this simple tale of two middle aged partners in marriage. The whole story takes place during one day as the husband and wife spend most of the time in their car driving to and from a friend's funeral. Of course, there are detours on the way, but most of the "action" takes place while driving where the author elegantly combines current conversations with their individual reflections of the past - mainly of their sweet and awkward courtship.

The husband and wife seemed very real to me (however, I must confess that for some reason I started picturing them as Kitty and Red Foreman from That 70s Show...). Anyway, I found myself rooting for their "happiness" - sentimental, I know, but the story did not sink to the level of sappiness. Also, their difficult relationships with their widely different children was given a bittersweet sense of reality as well.

Not a profound book, but still a very enjoyable read. I will definitely keep on the lookout for more of Tyler's books in anticipation of another rainy Sunday afternoon.
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LibraryThing member ccookie
~ Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania~

I have read three books by Anne Tyler and love her writing. I have 9 others on my bookshelves waiting for me to pick them up. Although I enjoyed this book, I think it is my least favourite. So far, number one is [The Accidental Tourist] and number two, [Ladder of Years]. However, just because it is my least favourite does not mean it is not a great read.

Written about one 24 hour period in the lives of Ira and Maggie Moran, it gives us a snapshot of their life together and the lives of other family and friends around them.

I did find it a startlingly real description of Ira and Maggie’s marriage, an ordinary marriage of ordinary people. I loved the depiction of this couple, of their strong love bond, the understanding they have of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The kindness and compassion that they show for one another. Oh, sure, there is also frustration and anger and withdrawal from one another. All these things that can co-exist in a marriage; the good, the bad and the ugly. I do find Anne Tyler pleases me!

3. 5 stars
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
Finished Breathing Lessons last night, and good riddance. I started off wanting to give it up after a page or two. The tone and characters reminded me of Olive Kitteridge which I found incredibly depressing and a slog to get through. I'm coming to the conclusion I don't much enjoy novels about modern marriage and regular daily irritations and hardships. Not sure why Fates and Furies worked for me, considering that is the case, but maybe because there was some kind of element of magic to it (which I can't put my finger on), and the switch of narrative voices was a device that worked very well in that case. I decided to stick to Breathing Lessons all the same, following Maggie and Ira to a friend's funeral where the widow expected everyone present to do a reprise of the songs they'd performed during her wedding, to everyone's consternation. Then discover just how much Maggie can't help herself meddling in people's life and making a mess of things, when she desperately tries to get her daughter-in-law back with her son, well after they've gone through a divorce because she is convinced they are still in love with one another. This despite the fact they married because Fiona had gotten pregnant at seventeen and only married Jesse, a singer in a band whom his father is convinced is a loser, because of Maggie's insistence and unabashed reliance on what seem to her to be tiny lies to convince Fiona that Jesse is serious about wanting a family with her. After a while, Anne Tyler's writing started to draw me in, despite the sinking feeling the story and characters gave me. Nothing goes right in this story, and Maggie's relationship with her husband is a bitter one, and she is constantly deluding herself she is out to do the right thing, when she seems to make things worse almost by default. Her loneliness and sense of disconnection are almost palpable. By the time I got to the last third, I started disliking the book intensely again, no matter how good the writing was. Not that I was expecting a happy ending, which wouldn't have suited the tone of the story, but it was all just so... depressing. Regular, struggling, bumbling lives getting along and being described in all their wretched sordid details. Again, beautifully written, which is the one saving grace of this book, as far as I'm concerned, but next time, I will drop any book that makes me feel this way. Life is too short and I have my own longstanding and deep relationship with melancholy to keep a handle on. Two and a half stars, because of how well it was written, but to say I *enjoyed* it would be a lie.… (more)
LibraryThing member bohemima
I liked the writing, but...the story seemed incredibly dated. Maggie is a cliche, the plot, which is thin, seems derivative, and the last page left me dissatisfied.
The action takes place in one day, as a middle-aged married couple travel to a funeral. We see them in everyday exchanges, exasperations, and occasional flashes of affection. Every character in the book is so commonplace that the reader loses interest about half-way through the book.
And in the end, no one has learned a thing from their experiences.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
This was an uneven read for me. I had a hard time engaging with it from the get-go but eventually settled into the story and the writing (and the very dry humor throughout). What was frustrating was the experience of feeling simultaneously sorry for and infuriated by the two main characters, Maggie and Ira Moran. They are a middle-aged couple driving to a funeral, with a few detours along the way. It’s a portrait of a marriage and of a woman - Maggie - who struggles to reconcile her idealistic views with the realities of her life. She tries to engineer and manipulate situations into what she thinks they should be but always with the best of intentions. In this way, with this tension of a good person acting in frustrating ways, Tyler creates a very real character, one you want to take by the shoulders and shake and then give a big hug. It’s a worthy and ultimately satisfying read, though not a flashy one.… (more)
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
Maggie + Ira - car trip reveals their life - son Jesse; daughter in law Fiona - seemed long? dull? Best Seller?

"Breathing Lessons" is the wonderfully moving and surprising story of Ira and Maggie Moran. She's impetuous, harum-scarum, easygoing; he's competent, patient, seemingly infallible. They've been married for 28 years. Now, as they drive from their home in Baltimore to the funeral of Maggie's best friend's husband, Anne Tyler shows us all there is to know about a marriage - the expectations, the disappointments, the way children can create storms in a family, the way a wife and husband can fall in love all over again, the way nothing really changes.… (more)


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