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Breathing Lessons: A Novel

Breathing Lessons: A Novel

3.1 27
by Anne Tyler

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WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZENEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • 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


WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZENEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • 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.

Praise for Breathing Lessons

“A wonderful novel, glowing with the insight and compassion of an artist's touch.”The Boston Globe

“Superb fiction: It shows us how to live.”Newsday

“Simple, wise, funny, touching, and real . . . Tyler is known for offbeat characters, and Maggie Moran is one of her most endearing.”The Christian Science Monitor

“An occasion for laughter and tears.”New York Post

“More powerful and moving than anything [Tyler] has done.”Los Angeles Times

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In perhaps her most mainstream, accessible novel so far, Tyler spins a tale of marriage and middle-class lives, in an age when social standards and life expectations have gone askew. While she remains a brilliant observer of human nature, there is a subtle change here in Tyler's focus. Where before her protagonists were eccentric, sometimes slightly fantastical characters who came at the end to a sense of peace, if not happiness, Maggie Moran and her husband Ira are average, unexceptional, even somewhat drab; and outside of some small epiphanies, little is changed between them at the story's close. It's this very realism that makes the story so effective and moving. Taking place on one summer day, when Maggie and Ira drive from Baltimore to Pennsylvania to a funeral, with an accidental detour involving an old black man they pass on the road and a side trip to see their former daughter-in-law and their seven-year-old grandchild, the novel reveals the basic incompatibility of their 28-year marriage and the love that binds them together nonetheless. This is another typical Tyler union of opposites: Maggie is impetuous, scatterbrained, klutzy, accident prone and garrulous; Ira is self-contained, precise, dignified, aloof with, however, an irritating (or endearing ) habit of whistling tunes that betray his inner thoughts. Both feel that their children are strangers, that the generations are "sliding downhill,'' and that somehow they have gone wrong in a society whose values they no longer recognize. With irresistibly funny passages you want to read out loud and poignant insights that illuminate the serious business of sharing lives in an unsettling world, this is Tyler's best novel yet.
Library Journal
Every reader knows a couple like the Morans. Maggie is a compassionate flibbertigibbet whose best intentions always backfire. Dour and sensible Ira, "born competent,'' Maggie thinks, "should have married Ann Landers.'' As they drive inexorably (with a few detours) toward the most comical funeral in recent fiction, Ira ponders his wasted life and the traffic. Maggie, meanwhile, is hatching a plot she thinks could reunite their son with his long-estrangeed wife and child, based on the evidence she has fabricated. Tyler's most entertaining novel yet, a love story in praise of marriage; essential for all fiction collections.
— Maurice Taylor, Brunswick County Library, Southport, N.C.
Edward Hoagland
. . .[M]s.Tyler's spare, stripped writing style resembles that of the so-called minimalists. . .[but] she is unlike them because of the depth of her affections and the utter absence from her work of a fashionable contempt for life. . . .Ms. Tyler is at the top of her powers. . .
The New York Times Books of the Century, September 11, 1998

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Breathing Lessons

By Anne Tyler

Random House

Anne Tyler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0345485572

Chapter One

Chapter 1

Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Maggie's girlhood friend had lost her husband. Deer Lick lay on a narrow country road some ninety miles north of Baltimore, and the funeral was scheduled for ten-thirty Saturday morning; so Ira figured they should start around eight. This made him grumpy. (He was not an early-morning kind of man.) Also Saturday was his busiest day at work, and he had no one to cover for him. Also their car was in the body shop. It had needed extensive repairs and Saturday morning at opening time, eight o'clock exactly, was the soonest they could get it back. Ira said maybe they'd just better not go, but Maggie said they had to. She and Serena had been friends forever. Or nearly forever: forty-two years, beginning with Miss Kimmel's first grade.

They planned to wake up at seven, but Maggie must have set the alarm wrong and so they overslept. They had to dress in a hurry and rush through breakfast, making do with faucet coffee and cold cereal. Then Ira headed off for the store on foot to leave a note for his customers, and Maggie walked to the body shop. She was wearing her best dress--blue and white sprigged, with cape sleeves--and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled but slowed her down some anyway; she was more used to crepe soles. Another problem was that the crotch of her panty hose had somehow slipped to about the middle of her thighs, so she had to take shortened, unnaturally level steps like a chunky little windup toy wheeling along the sidewalk.

Luckily, the body shop was only a few blocks away. (In this part of town things were intermingled--small frame houses like theirs sitting among portrait photographers' studios, one-woman beauty parlors, driving schools, and podiatry clinics.) And the weather was perfect--a warm, sunny day in September, with just enough breeze to cool her face. She patted down her bangs where they tended to frizz out like a forelock. She hugged her dress-up purse under her arm. She turned left at the corner and there was Harbor Body and Fender, with the peeling green garage doors already hoisted up and the cavernous interior smelling of some sharp-scented paint that made her think of nail polish.

She had her check all ready and the manager said the keys were in the car, so in no time she was free to go. The car was parked toward the rear of the shop, an elderly gray-blue Dodge. It looked better than it had in years. They had straightened the rear bumper, replaced the mangled trunk lid, ironed out a half-dozen crimps here and there, and covered over the dapples of rust on the doors. Ira was right: no need to buy a new car after all. She slid behind the wheel. When she turned the ignition key, the radio came on--Mel Spruce's AM Baltimore, a call-in talk show. She let it run, for the moment. She adjusted the seat, which had been moved back for someone taller, and she tilted the rearview mirror downward. Her own face flashed toward her, round and slightly shiny, her blue eyes quirked at the inner corners as if she were worried about something when in fact she was only straining to see in the gloom. She shifted gears and sailed smoothly toward the front of the shop, where the manager stood frowning at a clipboard just outside his office door.

Today's question on AM Baltimore was: "What Makes an Ideal Marriage?" A woman was phoning in to say it was common interests. "Like if you both watch the same kind of programs on TV," she explained. Maggie couldn't care less what made an ideal marriage. (She'd been married twenty-eight years.) She rolled down her window and called, "Bye now!" and the manager glanced up from his clipboard. She glided past him--a woman in charge of herself, for once, lipsticked and medium-heeled and driving an undented car.

A soft voice on the radio said, "Well, I'm about to remarry? The first time was purely for love? It was genuine, true love and it didn't work at all. Next Saturday I'm marrying for security."

Maggie looked over at the dial and said, "Fiona?"

She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender--the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.

Back when Maggie played baseball with her brothers, she used to get hurt but say she was fine, for fear they would make her quit. She'd pick herself up and run on without a limp, even if her knee was killing her. Now she was reminded of that, for when the manager rushed over, shouting, "What the . . . ? Are you all right?" she stared straight ahead in a dignified way and told him, "Certainly. Why do you ask?" and drove on before the Pepsi driver could climb out of his truck, which was probably just as well considering the look on his face. But in fact her fender was making a very upsetting noise, something like a piece of tin dragging over gravel, so as soon as she'd turned the corner and the two men--one scratching his head, one waving his arms--had disappeared from her rearview mirror, she came to a stop. Fiona was not on the radio anymore. Instead a woman with a raspy tenor was comparing her five husbands. Maggie cut the motor and got out. She could see what was causing the trouble. The fender was crumpled inward so the tire was hitting against it; she was surprised the wheel could turn, even. She squatted on the curb, grasped the rim of the fender in both hands, and tugged. (She remembered hunkering low in the tall grass of the outfield and stealthily, wincingly peeling her jeans leg away from the patch of blood on her knee.) Flakes of gray-blue paint fell into her lap. Someone passed on the sidewalk behind her but she pretended not to notice and tugged again. This time the fender moved, not far but enough to clear the tire, and she stood up and dusted off her hands. Then she climbed back inside the car but for a minute simply sat there. "Fiona!" she said again. When she restarted the engine, the radio was advertising bank loans and she switched it off.

Ira was waiting in front of his store, unfamiliar and oddly dashing in his navy suit. A shock of ropy black, gray-threaded hair hung over his forehead. Above him a metal sign swung in the breeze: sam's frame shop. picture framing. matting. your needlework professionally displayed. Sam was Ira's father, who had not had a thing to do with the business since coming down with a "weak heart" thirty years before. Maggie always put "weak heart" in quotation marks. She made a point of ignoring the apartment windows above the shop, where Sam spent his cramped, idle, querulous days with Ira's two sisters. He would probably be standing there watching. She parked next to the curb and slid over to the passenger seat.

Ira's expression was a study as he approached the car. Starting out pleased and approving, he rounded the hood and drew up short when he came upon the left fender. His long, bony, olive face grew longer. His eyes, already so narrow you couldn't be sure if they were black or merely dark brown, turned to puzzled, downward-slanting slits. He opened the door and got in and gave her a sorrowful stare.

"There was an unexpected situation," Maggie told him.

"Just between here and the body shop?"

"I heard Fiona on the radio."

"That's five blocks! Just five or six blocks."

"Ira, Fiona's getting married."

He gave up thinking of the car, she was relieved to see. Something cleared on his forehead. He looked at her a moment and then said, "Fiona who?"

"Fiona your daughter-in-law, Ira. How many Fionas do we know? Fiona the mother of your only grandchild, and now she's up and marrying some total stranger purely for security."

Ira slid the seat farther back and then pulled away from the curb. He seemed to be listening for something--perhaps for the sound of the wheel hitting. But evidently her tug on the fender had done the trick. He said, "Where'd you hear this?"

"On the radio while I was driving."

"They'd announce a thing like that on the radio?"

"She telephoned it in."

"That seems kind of . . . self-important, if you want my honest opinion," Ira said.

"No, she was just--and she said that Jesse was the only one she'd ever truly loved."

"She said this on the radio?"

"It was a talk show, Ira."

"Well, I don't know why everyone has to go spilling their guts in public these days," Ira said.

"Do you suppose Jesse could have been listening?" Maggie asked. The thought had just occurred to her.

"Jesse? At this hour? He's doing well if he's up before noon."

Maggie didn't argue with that, although she could have. The fact was that Jesse was an early riser, and anyhow, he worked on Saturdays. What Ira was implying was that he was shiftless. (Ira was much harder on their son than Maggie was. He didn't see half as many good points to him.) She faced forward and watched the shops and houses sliding past, the few pedestrians out with their dogs. This had been the driest summer in memory and the sidewalks had a chalky look. The air hung like gauze. A boy in front of Poor Man's Grocery was tenderly dusting his bicycle spokes with a cloth.

"So you started out on Empry Street," Ira said.


"Where the body shop is."

"Yes, Empry Street."

"And then cut over to Daimler . . ."

He was back on the subject of the fender. She said, "I did it driving out of the garage."

"You mean right there? Right at the body shop?"

"I went to hit the brake but I hit the gas instead."

"How could that happen?"

"Well, Fiona came on the radio and I was startled."

"I mean the brake isn't something you have to think about, Maggie. You've been driving since you were sixteen years old. How could you mix up the brake with the gas pedal?"

"I just did, Ira. All right? I just got startled and I did. So let's drop it."

"I mean a brake is more or less reflex."

"If it means so much to you I'll pay for it out of my salary."

Now it was his turn to hold his tongue. She saw him start to speak and then change his mind. (Her salary was laughable. She tended old folks in a nursing home.)

If they'd had more warning, she thought, she would have cleaned the car's interior before they set out. The dashboard was littered with parking-lot stubs. Soft-drink cups and paper napkins covered the floor at her feet. Also there were loops of black and red wire sagging beneath the glove compartment; nudge them accidentally as you crossed your legs and you'd disconnect the radio. She considered that to be Ira's doing. Men just generated wires and cords and electrical tape everywhere they went, somehow. They might not even be aware of it.

Excerpted from Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of over twenty novels; her eleventh, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Brief Biography

Baltimore, Maryland
Date of Birth:
October 25, 1941
Place of Birth:
Minneapolis, Minnesota
B.A., Duke University, 1961

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Breathing Lessons 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
CrummyVerses More than 1 year ago
I find it hard to believe that the average rating is 3 stars. I found it wonderful, worthy of the Pulitzer. It's a great read about how ordinary life can seem and yet Tyler makes it blossom. I read it several years ago and it allowed me to breathe during a difficult vacation when I was alone in a foreign city.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I find the book easy to read. It reminds me of the Audrey Hepburn movie 'Two for the Road'. However, I could not totally relate to its characters probably because of the age gap. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to my mom and aunts who are all going through mid-life crisis. oops...
Guest More than 1 year ago
Breathing Lessons is a character study of an average married couple. Maggie wants what she feels is best for her family and will meddle in their lives when necessary and Ira just wants his children to grow and become respondsible adults. There are several rather humorous scenes of Maggie interfering in peoples lives. However I was frustrated by the ending of the book as neither character has changed and they will continue their lives the way they always have.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Breathing Lessons is an extravagant novel that mostly takes place in a beat up car. Each character has it's own strange habit. Maggie and her complete opposite husband, Ira takes a road trip to an old friend funeral. It was wonderfully written, for each new book she writes gets better and better. Each scene is important because it symbolizes something that'll bring the beginning and end together. The whole book was written about one day with the characters reflecting on the past. This makes the characters more dynamic and realistic. Anne Tyler uses her own sense of writing. She comes up with catchy phrases like 'faucet coffee.' I was never bored but almost confused. It seems like she writes the novel then switches up the chapters. Sometimes I know too much or not enough. By contrasting the characters, subtle details shine through the characters, which make them more realistic. While reading, I compared the characters to me. I'm more of a nitpicker like Maggie. Ira and Maggie have a typical relationship. I'm surprise something like this could be made up. The detail that Tyler puts into her characters is unbelievable. It so unnecessary but makes it worth the while in the end. Breathing Lessons like other books I've read by Tyler entraps you in making you want to know why and what is going to happen next. If you like reading about what other families go through, or you just like an original book, then pick up Breathing Lessons. Families wouldn't be outsiders anymore.
stellamaymarie More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite Anne Tyler books. I loved every minute of the trip. I loved the way she describes momentary observations.She is a gift.
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Liliqoi2010 More than 1 year ago
This is an easy read with a common thread through vignettes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
loved this book!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic story, with charecters that you will love and care about. Very funny at times, laugh out loud funny ! One of my all time favorite books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Moved along slow and steady, but left wondering what was the point. Was not thrilled with the ending - felt like it just dropped off. A friend in book club felt she related to Maggie and enjoyed it (it was also her second time to read it).
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love it
lauracorgi More than 1 year ago
Always love Anne Tyler. An interesting thoughtful read.
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erb002 More than 1 year ago
I didn't enjoy this book as much as I had hoped even though it won the Pulitzer Prize. I read it all hoping it would get better but it just ended, no closure in my mind.
Lonnie More than 1 year ago
As is true of all of Anne Tyler's book, Breathing Lessons is full of engaging characters and insights about life. I've been a fan of hers for years and this book doesn't disappoint. Lorna
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PearlLH More than 1 year ago
Our book club read this and 4 of 5 were disappointed. I kept reading, thinking I would come to a point at the end when something profound would happen. When it didn't, all I could think was, "Why did I waste my time on that?"
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