Overview and Setting

Breathing Lessons is Tyler’s eleventh book. Winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in fiction as well as Time magazine’s Book of the Year, it is the story of the “run-of-the-mill marriage” of Ira and Maggie Moran. The story explores the joys and tribulations of marriage as Maggie and Ira travel from Baltimore to a funeral in Pennsylvania and home again in one day.

Ira runs a small family business in Baltimore while Maggie works as a geriatric nurse. The novel appears to have been set in the late 1970s or early 1980s. As the story begins, Ira is reflecting on the amount of waste in the world, including his own life. On this Saturday they are preparing to go to a funeral, and Maggie is picking up their car from the mechanic’s shop. As she drives home, she listens to a call-in radio program and is convinced that the woman announcing her impending marriage is her former daughter-in-law, Fiona. She collects Ira and they set out for the funeral in rural Pennsylvania. The novel then moves on to explore the intricacies of the Moran marriage, including an attempt by Ira and Maggie to help reconcile their ex-daughter-in-law with their son, Jesse. The Setting of the action is not a major focus of the book, and little detail is given regarding the Characters’ physical surroundings. Instead, it is their sensibilities and behavior that reflect their station in life. Interspersed with the narrative are Ira and Maggie’s dealings with various minor Characters on the road to the funeral and back: the waitress in whom Maggie confides her family problems; the old black driver, Mr. Otis, whom they help to a gas station after his car breaks down; and finally, their encounter with Leroy, their granddaughter, and her mother Fiona.

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