Monday, January 06, 2014

Breathing Lessons

Finished Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons last night. It's the fourth of her books I've read recently, and is perhaps a bit different from the others. In it a husband (Ira) and wife (Maggie) journey to a small village to attend the funeral of a friend's husband.  The first long sequence involves the journey to the funeral - not actually a long distance - and the funeral itself.  By the time Tyler has filled us in on a great deal of the couple's background, mostly seen from the wife's point of view (and she's not the most reliable character when it comes to the truth, we gradually discover) and the craziness of the funeral itself, we're a good third of the way through the book. On the return journey they have an encounter with an old man who's driving erratically. Because of Maggie's foolishness they wind up having to drive the old man to a garage where his son gives them all a few home truths. The last large section of the book entails Maggie attempting, on the journey home, to bring her son and former daughter-in-law back together again, by inviting the latter to come home with them for the weekend. Along with Fiona, the daughter-in-law (about whom we already know a great deal - or think we do) comes Leroy (a girl, in spite of her name).  Maggie's continual 'interfering' and slight shifting of the truth causes havoc yet again, and the book ends on a somewhat sad note.

This brief synopsis of the book, however, gives little of its merit. Maggie is a wonderful character who drives both the reader and other characters mad - at times. She can be guaranteed to put a spin on things that will warp the way the world goes. It's all small-scale stuff, as it always is in the Tyler universe, but it's all stuff that's reflects other people's ordinary lives, away from the superpowers and wars and massive tragedies of the news. Maggie is loveable, but she's also irritating, contrary, quick to take offence and quick to realise it, and slow to understand her inability to leave things alone and let them get on with their own course.

Ira is a more down to earth person, disappointed in his life in many ways because his youthful ambitions were thwarted by a selfish family who has forced him to take over the family business and care for them. He sees the truth of things more readily, but has to contend with Maggie's version of it, and this often produces a clash.

Every so often someone stands up and says what needs to be said, even though it may be painful. Even Maggie manages this on a rare occasion. But for the most part the characters struggle through ridiculous misunderstandings, reversals, moments of affection and love, and crises so small that the world would never take note of them. Yet every one of these rings bells with our own lives, our own marriages. Tyler has a wonderful ability to make things recognisable.  Time and again, you find yourself saying as your read...Yup, been there, done that.

And surrounding the main characters are a host of beautifully drawn and strong-minded minor players, from Leroy (a seven-year-old) who turns out not to be what we've been led to believe and has a mind of her own, to Serena, the newly-widowed friend who organises her husband's funeral along the lines of her wedding day, to the old black man, Otis, who rather than being appalled at the way Maggie has treated him, manages to agree with her at every point, making her situation even worse. Ira's family of crocks includes a father who's basically decided that he's too old and sick to bother any more, though he could be faking; his two sisters, one of whom perhaps has a mental handicap and the other who has a phobia about going outside - unless she's dressed as someone else.

Tyler can write wonderful scenes, rich in incident and character and atmosphere, scenes that extend over many pages without flagging. She has a singular skill with dialogue: words twist and turn even while the characters are saying them. And she can bring humour out of the most hopeless-seeming episodes, or thoughts. I'm tempted to get a Kindle copy of this book just so I can highlight all the wonderful moments when I almost laughed out loud.

Post a Comment