Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: "Breathing Lessons"

Breathing LessonsBreathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I needed something to read until the book I *really* want to read arrived in the mail, so I grabbed this old Anne Tyler off the shelf. I used to read Tyler a lot; I loved "The Accidental Tourist", liked "Saint Maybe" and "A Patchwork Planet", found "Celestial Navigation" almost unbearably sad, and had read eight of her novels all told.

Perhaps my tastes have changed, or I simply reached my limit. Maybe what I found endearing twenty-five years ago just annoys me now. In any event, "Breathing Lessons", which won a Pulitzer Prize, just irritated me. For one thing, even bearing in mind that the book came out in 1988, it all seemed more like it took place in the early sixties or something. The main characters, a married couple named Maggie and Ira, seemed OLD. They open the book by traveling to the funeral of Maggie's friend's husband, and the friend basically has everyone re-enact her wedding day by singing a bunch of pre-Elvis pop songs. Yes, at a funeral. I'm telling you, these characters practically trip over themselves in their zeal to be "quirky". For this reason, none of them seemed real to me. They seemed like characters assigned an array of quirky but not very appealing behaviors.

Ira ("Ira"? Really? Is anyone under eighty actually named "Ira"?) is a stock husband character who is designated as the sensible one, and yet he lets his scatterbrained, meddlesome wife Maggie call all the shots while he stands around griping and making faces but doing as he's told all the same. Maggie, for her part, seems to be devoting her life to trying to run and fool with the lives of her son and his ex-wife. She lies, manipulates, denies, exaggerates and pretty much sticks her Pinocchio nose in at every turn, and that's the main action in the novel; Maggie playing bird-brained puppeteer to a crew of characters who don't apparently have the spine to tell her no. She isn't even an interesting anti-hero because she's too silly to be that.

The book did make me chuckle several times, and there were sections where I was drawn in for a few pages, but unless you want to read a novel about a couple of dinosaurs who need an express ticket into the present, and who pretty much just drift from one goofy, contrived mess to another, led by Maggie, who got on my nerves by page three, then skip it. 

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Cloudia said...

" what I found endearing twenty-five years ago just annoys me now."

Goddess that is true!!!!!!!

Your poetry will still be great though. I bet.

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
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Marcoantonio Arellano said...

I agree with Cloudia both in her reference to annoyances and your poetry.

Poetry is music, it never ages, it does not live in time.

Sioux said...

Okay, I have to know: what book were you waiting on?

I agree. I read "Breathing Lessons" a while ago, and I'm also a fan of Tyler's books. I found it less than engaging.

I would highly recommend "Freeman" by Leonard Pitts, Jr--if you like historical fiction that is really well done. If you like scary, I just finished Joe Hill's "NOS4A2" and devoured it.

So, give. What book were you waiting on?

Daryl said...

umm .. a friend of ours is well under 80 and named Ira ... but i digress .. i read this in the waaay back and didnt finish it because well aside from St Maybe i have never been able to finish a Tyler book!

Marion said...

I love all of Tyler's books. I think you have to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy her stories, though.

I just read a good one: "Finding Casey" by Jo-Ann Mapson. How I loved her "Hank & Chloe" books and also the 'Bad Girl Creek' trilogy. So many books, so little time.... xo

Grandmother said...

I remember thinking as I read Breathing Lessons 'why is everyone going along with this woman?'. Because of the title I thought I wold like it but not so. Just finished The Language of Flowers and loved it. The young woman protagonist is unusual and non-typical and I ended up cheering for her.

Lynn said...

I started that book and couldn't finish it. I just couldn't get into it.

(I do know a youngish man named Ira.) :)

G-Man said...


Sara said...

Will do...The only one I liked was Accidental Tourist:~)

HermanTurnip said...

"singing a bunch of pre-Elvis pop a funeral"

Ya know, there's a fine line between quirky and irritating. Some characters just don't know when they've crossed that threshold...

K9friend said...

It's been years ago since I read this one, and it's become nothing more than a vague memory. It must not have impressed me.

Critter Alley

Mama Zen said...

Consider it skipped!

hedgewitch said...

Well, you made me want to throw this one in the dumpster--a fate I save for only the very worst of books--ones that I feel it would be wrong to pass along to unknown strangers at the Good Will.I hate sandpapery characters that wear on you with every page, and this one sounds like one I wouldn't take as a precious gift.

cinderkeys said...

Late to this, but ...

_Breathing Lessons_ was the second book of Tyler's that I read, and I barely remember it. I recognize one of the features you're talking about from her other work, though:

* Names that are way too old for the characters. I haven't gotten around to beginning her latest, _The Beginner's Goodbye_, because the deceased wife who died in her thirties was called Dorothy. C'mon.

* If the names don't belong to some previous generation, they're annoyingly quirky. The quirky names annoy me more than the quirky behavior.

Do the characters say "all at once" all the time in _Breathing Lessons_? I noticed that Tyler had this writing tic in later works and wondered why her editors never pointed it out. It would be pretty easy to fix.

My favorite Anne Tyler: _Back When We Were Grownups_. Yes, there's quirkiness involved, but the protagonist is a realistic, likable human being going for a realistic, relatable mid-life semi-crisis. Try that one before you give up on her entirely.