PPRL: Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler (winner, 1989)


Breathing Lessons spans a day in the life of middle-aged couple Maggie and Ira Moran, with flashbacks to various watershed moments in their lives and their marriage. After attending the funeral of Maggie's childhood friend's husband, they are briefly detoured by an encounter with a fellow motorist, then spend the evening reuniting their grown son with his estranged ex-wife and young daughter.

My Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I was blown away by how well Tyler handles flashback (which constitutes a good half of the story). She leads the reader deep into the past, skipping lightly into the memory of a character before careening suddenly back to the present day, on a ride that isn't jarring so much as exhilarating. She handles theme and metaphor with grace and just the right touch of poignancy: disappointment, loss, reality v. unreality (as expressed through dreams, soap operas - even lies), connection v. solitude, miscommunication and misunderstanding... Characters are gloriously flawed, petty, and as relatable it gets. Breathing Lessons is about an imperfect family in an imperfect world; I came away understanding them completely and loving them fully.

Selected Excerpts

With just a little stretch of the imagination, Maggie thought, this could be Mr. Alden's civics class. (You had to overlook the old lady, who had remained contentedly seated with her tinkling cup of tea.) She glanced around and saw a semicircle of graying men and women, and there was something so worn down about them, so benign and unassuming, that she felt at that moment they were as close to her as family. She wondered how she could have failed to realize that they would have been aging along with her all these years, going through more or less the same stages--rearing their children and saying goodbye to them, marveling at the wrinkles they discovered in the mirror, watching their parents turn fragile and uncertain. Somehow, she had pictured them still fretting over Prom Night.


She seemed to have fallen in love again. In love with her own husband! The convenience of it pleased her--like finding right in her own pantry all the fixings she needed for a new recipe.


He loved even his worn-down, defeated father, even the memory of his poor mother who had always been so pretty and never realized it because anytime she approached a mirror she had her mouth drawn up lopsided with shyness. 

Werds I Lerned (Or Had Fergotten)

mawkish - sentimental in a feeble or sickly way
fulsom - complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree
gimcrack - flimsy or poorly made but deceptively attractive
diffident - modest or shy because of a lack of self-confidence

Next Up

The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields