BREATHING LESSONS / Anne Tyler. 1988 (388 pgs)
First Sentence: “Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Maggie’s girlhood friend had lost her husband.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Third person narrative. Very close on both Maggie and Ira, but the narrator is closer on Maggie and knows her thoughts. The narrator closely observes Ira as if it is Maggie doing the observing. They’ve been married for 30+ years, if that explains anything. The narrative is told in the immediate past tense and the author frequently uses dialogue between Maggie and Ira, which is predominantly in the present tense. This makes the narrative seem particularly immediate.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Maggie set the alarm clock wrong. They got a late start. She is dressed up, but her panty hose are droopy. She wants to go to the funeral, Ira does not. We learn that even though they’re not in agreement, they know how to navigate around each other with the least amount of disturbance. They have lived and worked in the same Baltimore neighborhood for over thirty years.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: In her haste to get to the funeral, Maggie has a fender bender with a Pepsi truck, but drives off from the scene of the accident. It is a sore spot between her and her husband, but we also learn that Maggie and Ira have been married for many years, have a grandchild and are “in it for the long haul.” Maggie also discovers that her daughter-in-law is preparing to remarry; the first time was for love, this time will be for security. This has such a strong effect on Maggie that the dichotomy feels catalytic toward a major tension of the story.
Character: Both Maggie and Ira are very clearly drawn through their clothing choices and the way the comment on each other’s actions. Maggie walks and drives through her nearby neighborhood and the blend of residential and business buildings seems to reflect the kind of people the Moran’s are. Maggie appears unfocused and both characters are upset by the auto accident, but they manage their emotions to avoid confrontation. I mention this as character description, since running parallel to their efforts to avoid confrontation is the upset that their daughter in law is “leaving” their family for another man.
The first ten pages BREATHING LESSONS focuses more on character and character set up than on location or setting. It seems that while these characters fit logically into their setting, who they are is more important that where they are. Still, it is easy to understand that Baltimore and Ira and Maggie Moran run on a parallel track.
Setting: The action starts in Baltimore and by page 5 the action is on its way to Deer Lick, PA. The settings are simple and put forward simply. While no particular descriptions of their home and neighborhood are detailed, enough information is disclosed to give the reader a sense of the type of neighborhood they live in. It is easy to suppose that they will return home and the reader will receive more details of their home and home life when they return. Since much of the action of the first ten pages centers around their car, the reader has a stronger sense of the vehicle and its (tattered) condition.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: There are several parallels and allusions made to happy married life versus secure married life. The first line clues the reader into a marriage that is gone out of balance due to a lost husband. Even though Maggie and Ira cope with their disagreements and differing points of view, there seems to be an underlying tension that Maggie will have to confront. Maggie comments on a trait of Ira’s: he whistles. Not only does he whistle, but when he whistles the lyrics of those songs make sub-textual commentary on conversations between Ira and Maggie, which, according to Ira, are unconscious.
Anne Tyler’s writing style is easy to follow, encouraging the reader to add in the small details. Her characters in BREATHING LESSONS are about to fall into emotional crisis or crisis of personal value. Tyler does not spend a large amount of narrative time on details, since what is about to come is far more important than the buckle on a shoe, or the pattern on a dress. That’s the way I see it.
Random Comments: I have read two or three of Anne Tyler’s other novels. Middle-aged woman in crisis seems to be a popular theme. It is an easy bet that Maggie will undergo some serious consideration regarding her marriage, her place in the family or the validity of her life to date.