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Breathing Lessons

by Anne Tyler

Breathing Lessons is the story of a middle-aged
couple, Maggie and Ira, told over one day in a car
journey from their hometown of Baltimore to
Philadelphia.
Life is at a crossroads for Maggie and Ira and this is
brought home to them after attending the funeral of
the husband of Maggie’s friend. This and the fact that
their younger child, Daisy, is leaving home for
college the next day sets Maggie musing on what might have been and in her own clumsy and infuriating way she attempts to mend her dysfunctional family.
Jesse, the couple’s twenty-something son, after a
short relationship in his teens, has a wife and
daughter in a town not far from where the funeral took place. Maggie gets it into her head that she wants to see her grand-daughter and once that idea has taken root nothing can shift it. A detour is made, Ira’s protests are ignored, and the result is heart-rending.
We are taken inside Maggie’s head for much of the book and while her thoughts are clear, intelligent, logical and lucid, her actions often go tragically wrong. (There is a wonderfully touching and comic episode in which the couple become embroiled with an elderly gent, Mr Otis, who is himself in the middle of a family crisis).
This is a book about hopes for what might have been.
Maggie’s dream of a functioning, happy family; Ira’s disappointment about not becoming a doctor (he was forced, after college, to look after his ailing father and troubled sisters); Jesse’s teenage ambition to become a rock star and later a good dad. Even Daisy had never really been a fully paid up member of the family, electing to spend much of her time as a child with the family of a friend whose cake-baking, party-giving, mother Maggie dubbed ‘Mrs Perfect’.

In Breathing Lessons Anne Tyler does what she does best and makes the lives of ordinary people extraordinary. This is a wonderful book – warm, comic and sad in turn but never mawkish or sentimental – just real.

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