A highly regarded author of short stories and novels, Anne Tyler is known for her fiction exploring the vicissitudes of human existence in late 20th-century America. Tyler’s readers readily identify with her complex Characters and see their own experiences mirrored in her fiction. While Tyler has yet to write a young adult novel, her adult fiction often makes readers of many ages laugh out loud, and also makes them think-about life, loss, family, death, and all aspects of the human condition.
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.
The central theme of Tyler’s novel is the dynamic of modern American families. Within that theme, Tyler focuses on the fact that an individual’s initial sense of identity derives from one’s relationship with one’s family. For Tyler, the family acts as a force on an individual, in both positive and negative ways. In Breathing Lessons, each character has an individual interpretation of the concept of family that coincides with his understanding of his own identity. Ira feels trapped by his family: “his sisters’ hands dragged him down the way drowning victims drag down whoever tries to rescue them.” This view extends from Ira’s perception of himself as someone cheated out of his dreams. One of those dreams is that a family is loving, loud, boisterous, and fun. Ira’s view of his own family as a trap is mirrored in his job as a picture framer. For Ira, the image never changes and it never matches his envisaged ideal portrait.
Breathing Lessons utilizes a third-person omniscient narrative. The book is divided into three parts: the first and third sections reflect Maggie’s interpretation of events, while the second part of the book is told from Ira’s point of view. The two viewpoints allow both Characters to provide their perspective on their lives and long marriage.
In general, the subject of Tyler’s novel is family and marital relationships. Very little social and political background is provided in the story, although it is clear that the Morans are part of the American middle class. President Reagan had come into power in 1980, promising economic prosperity via deep tax cuts. His theory was that deep tax cuts would be offset by an increase in employment rates and tax revenue through greater capital investment. Known in layman’s terms as the trickle-down theory, the premise was proven false, just as Nobel Prizewinning economist Wassily Leontief guaranteed. According to Forbes magazine, the richest one percent of Americans gained a combined total of one trillion dollars between 1979 and 1990. In other words, a greater stratification between rich and poor was the result of early 1980s economic policy.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
What is the role of game playing in the novel? How do games demonstrate the motif of breathing lessons or support Tyler’s large Themes?
Tyler continues to explore American lives and Characters in her 1998 novel, A Patchwork Planet. In this work, Tyler relates the story of Barnaby Gaitlan, star employee of Baltimore’s Rent-a-Back, Inc. At the age of 30, Barnaby is divorced and still not finished with college or free of a debt to his parents. He helps senior citizens sort out their attics and basements while they fend off attempts to put them in nursing homes. Another Tyler work that explores family life is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), relating the history of the Tull family. Additionally, The Accidental Tourist (1985) remains a favorite of many Tyler fans. The story concerns recently divorced travel writer Macon Leary, who hates travel. Macon moves home with his temperamental dog, Edward, and has a relationship with the dog’s trainer.