Breathing Lessons

by Anne Tyler

Hardcover, 1988

Call number




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


Fiction. Literature. HTML:WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Evoking Jane Austen, Emma Straub, and other masters of the literary marriage, Breathing Lessons celebrates the small miracles and magic of truly knowing someone. Unfolding over the course of a single emotionally fraught day, this stunning novel encompasses a lifetime of dreams, regrets and reckoningsand is oftern regarded as Tyler's seminal work. Maggie and Ira Moran are on a road trip from Baltimore, Maryland to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of a friend. Along the way, they reflect on the state of their marriage, its trials and its triumphsthrough their quarrels, their routines, and their ability to tolerate each others faults with patience and affection. Where Maggie is quirky, lovable and mischievous, Ira is practical, methodical and mired in reason. What begins as a day trip becomes a revelatory and unexpected journey, as Ira and Maggie rediscover the strength of their bond and the joy of having somebody with whom to share the ride, bumps and all. More powerful and moving than anything [Tyler] has done. Los Angeles Times.… (more)

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
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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 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
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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 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
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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 Carlathelibrarian
This is a book about life. Told from 2 different points of view, we learn about the courtship and marriage of Maggie and Ira Moran. They have been married for 28 years and they have seen them very differently. Maggie is the optimist, everything will work out with her assistance. Ira is the realist.
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If Maggie would stop meddling, life will work out the way it is supposed to. With their son Jesse, daughter Daisy, ex-daughter-in-law Fiona and granddaughter Leroy all moving on with their lives and not including Maggie, she is sad and lonely. This is a marriage that needs something, maybe just meaningful conversation. Some humour, some sadness and lots of frustration.
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LibraryThing member DowntownLibrarian
It's hard to go wrong with Anne Tyler.
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
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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 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 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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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under-achieving woman who feels her life ebbing away from her, but she just bugged me.
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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
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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 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
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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.
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LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
This is definitely not a book I would normally have picked out for myself. And while it was very well written and kept my attention throughout, in the end I found it kind of disappointing. I kept waiting for something to really engage me and in the end nothing ever did.

I can see why this was so
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popular when it came out. It is easy to read. The average person, especially those like myself that are approaching middle age and are going to more funerals than weddings, can definitely relate to the way the two main characters view their lives. I am finding as I get older regrets over paths not followed occupy my thoughts more and more, and that is well reflected in this book. I know it sounds trite but in the end the book is about relationships; between husband and wife, parents and siblings, friends and coworkers. I recognized very clearly the nature of all of these as I have experienced them at one time or another. So in those terms the book hit its mark. However, it didn’t go much beyond that.

First, some parts were simply not believable. The author spends a great deal of time making what I have described above very relatable, yet in order to illustrate those she puts the characters in very unbelievable situations., situations I can honestly say I have never been in and in which I am certain the average person has probably never been either. So there was a real disconnect there in my mind.

Second, the characters seemed to display the exact same character flaws their entire lives, like they are just incapable of learning from past mistakes. It became frustrating to read, and made the book pretty predictable in places.

Lastly, and this is a function of the time in which it was written, but so much of what happens in the story is the result of the characters not being able to quickly communicate with each other. I can’t help but think that had this same story taken place in 2014 it would have lasted all of ten pages as virtually every crisis could have been resolved with a quick cell phone call.

Overall quite enjoyable but not overwhelmingly interesting, which given the acclaim (and awards) it has received, is a minority opinion.
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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,
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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 lucymaesmom
Depressing. Wished I'd picked a different book on this gray day!
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,
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the book is wiser than perhaps it seems at face value.
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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
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micro-focusd on her every thought and action.
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LibraryThing member guiltlessreader
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 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 thorold
This starts off almost exactly like The Accidental Tourist, with a middle-aged married couple having a row in a car. Which is probably Tyler having a little joke at the expense of the critics who complain that all her books are exactly alike, because it turns out to be a kind of mirror image of the
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earlier book. Maggie and Ira are resilient and tolerant enough to deal with each other's unreasonable behaviour when confronted with the problem of the empty nest. And of course Maggie is unreasonable in quite a different way from Macon in The Accidental Tourist — she's basically that stock figure of comedy, the person who habitually gets into worse and worse complications trying to cover up what was originally no more than a minor gaffe or a trivial accident. (Even her marriage to Ira turns out to have been the result of an awkward misunderstanding.) But Tyler draws her with such sympathy that we can't write her off as a stock figure: like the rest of Tyler's well-meaning eccentrics, we can't help feeling that she's got a strong resemblance to someone we know rather well...
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LibraryThing member lsh63
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
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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 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 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
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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.
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LibraryThing member annbury
I read this because I have been hearing for years how terrific it was, and because it won the Pulitzer. For me, it was a disappointment; The author writes well and creates believable, rounded characters, but they really didn't interest me that much, nor did they really pull at my heartstrings. The
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central character is well meaning but continually shades the truth in ways that lead other characters astray; I found her distinctly irritating. Not a bad read but not what I had hoped.
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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
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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.
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