Anne Tyler


Breathing Lessons


Don’t read this if you’re going to read the book anyway.


Maybe I would have given it an A if it had a happy ending, even if the way it actually did finish was perhaps more profound.


Tyler manages to be enormously satisfying without needing tricks of sex and car-chases, although she does throw in some humour. The central character is around 50 and concerned with trying to get her divorced son and ex-daughter-in-law back together. The title comes from a comment about how stupid it seems to give people ‘breathing lessons’ for giving birth - as if we didn’t know how to do something so simple. Tyler wisely parallels this with being part of a family: her characters could be very happy, but instead they make silly basic mistakes that absurdly cause deep rifts. Their assumption that they can just act without thought is disastrous.


Maggie’s hopefulness in believing the best about people nearly pulls off reconciliation, but her family’s cynicism and pride bring it to nothing - the cynicism is self-fulfilling. Maggie is proved ‘wrong’, but the others being proved ‘right’ actually sees everyone lose.


It’s ultimately a sad book, making some of the same points as Lewis’ The Great Divorce, but with fully developed characters (there aren’t many events, but we know the people so well by the end that ‘small’ events really have an impact), an awareness that people do ‘move on’ even after making rash decisions, and grudging recognition of how we all make them.


June 2002