Breathing Lessons

A Novel

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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 reckonings—and 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 triumphs—through their quarrels, their routines, and their ability to tolerate each other’s 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


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

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

“Displays her extraordinary gifts in supreme harmony: exquisite narrative clarity, faultless comic timing, and the Tyler trademark of happy-sad characters inspiring a mid-American domestic drama that somehow slips the surly bonds of the quotidian to become timeless and universal.” —“The 100 Best Novels,” The Guardian


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.

Q & A

A Conversation with Anne Tyler
Interviewer Michelle Huneven lives in California and is the author of Round Rock and Jamesland.

Michelle Huneven: Breathing Lessons came out in 1988 . . . so, what do you remember about writing this novel? What inspired it? What did you set out to do in it?

Anne Tyler: As near as I can recall, I began with the thought that it might be interesting to cover twenty-four hours in the life of a marriage. (Although literally speaking, it ended up a bit less than that.) I can easily imagine why I chose the subject of marriage– there’s no better mirror of character–but I forget how I arrived at the notion of twenty-four hours. Maybe I was setting it up as a sort of challenge to myself: How much could be revealed about two lives upon such brief acquaintance?

MH: Was this your first novel constructed with such a short time frame? What were the constraints of a one-day frame? What were the freedoms?

AT: I’ve never before or since set a novel within such a limited time span. In one way, I found it easier, almost like coloring a picture in a child’s coloring book. There are only so many hours; only so much can happen; the story has a natural ending point and presents no sticky decisions about how far to continue with the narrative. But I have to say that as I went on I felt a little claustrophobic. I’m not an action-oriented writer, so I often de­pend on the passage of time (births, weddings, aging, deaths) for my plot. And here I no longer had that crutch.
The novel I wrote next, Saint Maybe, covers years and years of time. Clearly I was making it up to myself for the deprivations of Breathing Lessons.

MH: Flashbacks are tricky to write–they can slow down or stall out a narrative. Yet the flashbacks in Breathing Lessons supply vital information when needed and thus have their own urgency. Do you have specific ideas about flashbacks–when to use them, when to avoid them, and ways of making them work?

AT: My private feeling is that a flashback is a sign of failure. It’s bad storytelling; it’s like those tiresome people who stop in the middle of recounting some experience and say, “Oh, wait, what I should have said is that just before that . . .” On the other hand, sometimes you just have to go ahead and admit to the failure. There really wasn’t any way I could get in everything I wanted to say about the Morans’ past without saying, “Oh, wait . . .”

MH: I was also struck by what a classic journey narrative Breath­ing Lessons is. It’s a physical trip, however modest, that also em­bodies a major emotional transition: Maggie, facing an empty nest, is on a kind of quest–conscious or not–for meaning in the rest of her life. Out of curiosity, how much did you inten­tionally work with elements of quest and journey narratives (and “road novels”!), and how much did your story simply find its own archetypal patterns?

AT: I never think about other books when I’m writing my own, or about models for what I’m doing. Probably I’m worried I might accidentally plagiarize something. I believe that the deci­sion to make this a “road-trip” novel had the same roots as the decision to make it a twenty-four-hour novel: It provided a rigid frame that I was forced to work within. I also liked the idea of ending it with the mention of another trip that would take place the next day. The journey of their marriage goes on, I wanted to say.

MH: Maggie is a layered comic creation, one of fiction’s great meddlers, who is at once maddening and big-hearted, generous and shortsighted, oblivious and unintentionally cruel. What made you create her? Was she a lot of fun to write? Did you model her after a living person?

AT: No life models at all, thank heaven. I’ve often thought that I would be much less tolerant of some of my characters in real life than I am on paper, and Maggie is a prime example of that. She would drive me crazy! Intrusiveness and truth-bending: two qualities I can’t abide. Although I’m also very fond of her, and yes, she was enormous fun to write about. I think she came to my mind because, having decided to focus on a marriage, I wanted to show how the two people in a marriage sometimes accommodate each other to an astonishing degree. Also, without Maggie’s machinations, how would the novel have any action? Jesse and Fiona would have sat in their separate spots in the universe forever.

MH: You have said in another interview that you take notes for a long time before you start writing. What kind of notes did you take for Ira? For Fiona? For Jesse? Did any of your characters defy you and speak or behave or hijack the novel in ways you didn’t expect?
AT: With Ira, I remember beginning with his looks. He had a closed, private face, I thought, and then I thought he might give away more than he realized whenever he whistled a song at ran­dom. And I remember that Fiona and Jesse came to my mind when I saw a teenaged couple walking in a shopping mall each with one hand in the back pocket of the other’s jeans. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a character, but it’s funny how some little detail like that will set everything else in motion.

The more extreme of the characters–Maggie, Fiona, Fiona’s mother–ran away with the novel a dozen times over just in the outrageous things they said. I had no idea, for instance, that Maggie would insist on being let out of the car along the road! And I kept trying to think of some convincing way to make Ira sing with Maggie at the funeral until I realized I just couldn’t. He wouldn’t do it, period, and I would have to work around that.

MH: Ira and Maggie both seem to be very caring people. Ira takes care of his mentally ill sisters and grouchy father; Maggie works in an old age home where most of her kindnesses are instantly forgotten. They have a strong, loving marriage in which they take their differences for granted. Yet they are also a little volatile and have, to some degree, alienated their children. Do you consider their family life happy, typical, typically unhappy . . . ?

AT: I think their marriage is a very happy one, even though you or I might not want it for ourselves. And I think their relation­ship with their daughter is happy as well, considering her about-to-take-wing stage of life. Jesse, well, that’s another story. He certainly has reason to chafe at Maggie’s intrusions, but he is a problem in himself–the kind of person who always blames the other person, not a good sign–and I don’t see that as a situation with much hope.

MH: The episode involving Mr. Otis seems to me like the whole novel reflected in a tiny mirror. Also, in Mr. Otis, Maggie has met her match–someone who accepts and insists on her reality. Where did the marvelous Mr. Otis come from?

AT: Mr. Otis was one of those gifts that make writers think, oh, well, maybe they’ll go on slogging away at their trade after all. He took root initially from a real-life moment–I was once so mad at another driver that I pointed out a supposed problem with his wheel as I passed him, and then regretted it when I saw how old he was–but everything Mr. Otis said from moment one, every little bit about his wife and his wife’s dream and his nephew, the whole works, just landed in my lap by magic. I al­most wonder if there really is a Mr. Otis, and if so, I thank him wholeheartedly.

MH: In this book, almost every character sees the world through a scrim of prejudice and preconceived ideas–“projections,” as psy­chologists say. This makes for great comedy on the one hand, and yet over and over again, these blind spots prevent the characters from moving forward in life and into possible happiness. If we’re all operating under these false assumptions, how do we ever get through to one another? And what actually does hold us together?

AT: The fact that two different people can view the same situa­tion in two wildly different ways is a huge joy to me as a novel­ist. I love the luxury of being able to embrace two opposite slants of vision–to tell you in Chapter One what happened, and then to say in Chapter Two that no, according to so-and-so it hap­pened a whole other way.
But I enjoy it only as a novelist, not in real life, where it causes us, often, not to get through to one another at all, and to have nothing at all holding us together.

MH: If I picture Maggie and Ira from their children’s point of view, I find them neurotic, judgmental, and borderline unbear­able. I would want to get out of the house and as far away as pos­sible! If I view them as peers in the parenting world, they seem like another couple muddling along, still flawed and neurotic, but forgivably human. Where do they sit with you these days?

AT: It’s been a long time since I read Breathing Lessons, so when I look back on Maggie and Ira they seem a little smaller and dimmer, the way people from the past often do. But I do still feel great affection for them. Of Maggie I think, “Honestly, that Maggie!” and I smile and shake my head. She doesn’t think be­fore she acts, it’s true, but she never acts out of selfishness or meanness. Just look at the way she views her son–a loser in so many ways, and yet she is remarkably understanding and forgiv­ing in her perceptions of him. And Ira I still find intriguing. I know he must be an exasperating husband, but there’s some­thing about his self-containment that continues to endear him to me.

MH: Today, perhaps twenty years after the action in Breathing Lessons, Leroy would be in her late twenties. How do you think she would remember that day? How do you think she would see her parents and grandparents?

AT: What a fascinating question! I’ve never thought about that. Okay, here’s what I would suppose: Heading back home from that day, Leroy had to listen to her mother complaining nonstop about Jesse, about Maggie and Ira, about everything that had gone wrong with her marriage from the start. But all Leroy was think­ing was, here she’d come this close to her fascinating father and then her mother had to go and ruin it all! Besides which, her grandmother was so much warmer and cozier than Fiona’s mother and made fried chicken from scratch, to boot. Not to mention her grandfather, who loved her in spite of himself, she could tell. The memory may have taken a backseat for a time, beaten down by Fiona’s interpretation of events, but in Leroy’s ado­lescence (when she and Fiona were predictably at odds), it re­emerged. And after one spectacular battle at home, Leroy decided to go look for Jesse and his parents. Jesse, well, he didn’t quite work out. He did for a while but not in the long run. Her grandparents, on the other hand . . . A whole new story, I guess.

MH: I’ve asked you a similar question before, but as you look at all of your sixteen novels, do they fall into any groups? If so, where would you put Breathing Lessons? Did you address any concerns or interests that arose from other books? Did it feed ideas into any future books?

AT: It’s one of the novels I do still claim, I’m happy to say. (I’d like to disown my first four.) It has in common with some of my other books an interest in the warm-vs.-cool issue–the mutual attraction between impul­sive, open people and aloof, cautious people. And I suppose that its subject matter puts it on a continuum with The Amateur Marriage. That was another close examination of a marriage, but a marriage that was unhappy, which made it an even better mirror of character.

MH: Forgive me for this question, but . . . what was it like when Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize? Was this the book you yourself might’ve singled out for the honor?

AT: I was flabbergasted. In fact I had no idea Breathing Lessons was in the running. And no, it’s not the book I would have ex­pected to win. I think Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was more deserving.

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