NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Evoking Jane Austen, Emma Straub, and other masters of the literary marriage, Breathing Lessons celebrates the small miracles and magic of truly knowing someone.
Unfolding over the course of a single emotionally fraught day, this stunning novel encompasses a lifetime of dreams, regrets and reckonings—and is oftern regarded as Tyler's seminal work. Maggie and Ira Moran are on a road trip from Baltimore, Maryland to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of a friend. Along the way, they reflect on the state of their marriage, its trials and its triumphs—through their quarrels, their routines, and their ability to tolerate each other’s faults with patience and affection. Where Maggie is quirky, lovable and mischievous, Ira is practical, methodical and mired in reason. What begins as a day trip becomes a revelatory and unexpected journey, as Ira and Maggie rediscover the strength of their bond and the joy of having somebody with whom to share the ride, bumps and all.
“More powerful and moving than anything [Tyler] has done.” —Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Date of Birth:October 25, 1941
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B.A., Duke University, 1961
Read an Excerpt
Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Maggie’s girlhood friend had lost her husband. Deer Lick lay on a narrow country road some ninety miles north of Baltimore, and the funeral was scheduled for ten-thirty Saturday morning; so Ira figured they should start around eight. This made him grumpy. (He was not an early-morning kind of man.) Also Saturday was his busiest day at work, and he had no one to cover for him. Also their car was in the body shop. It had needed extensive repairs and Saturday morning at opening time, eight o’clock exactly, was the soonest they could get it back. Ira said maybe they’d just better not go, but Maggie said they had to. She and Serena had been friends forever. Or nearly forever: forty-two years, beginning with Miss Kimmel’s first grade.
They planned to wake up at seven, but Maggie must have set the alarm wrong and so they overslept. They had to dress in a hurry and rush through breakfast, making do with faucet coffee and cold cereal. Then Ira headed off for the store on foot to leave a note for his customers, and Maggie walked to the body shop. She was wearing her best dress—blue and white sprigged, with cape sleeves—and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled but slowed her down some anyway; she was more used to crepe soles. Another problem was that the crotch of her panty hose had somehow slipped to about the middle of her thighs, so she had to take shortened, unnaturally level steps like a chunky little windup toy wheeling along the sidewalk.
Luckily, the body shop was only a few blocks away. (In this part of town things were intermingled—small frame houses like theirs sitting among portrait photographers’ studios, one-woman beauty parlors, driving schools, and podiatry clinics.) And the weather was perfect—a warm, sunny day in September, with just enough breeze to cool her face. She patted down her bangs where they tended to frizz out like a forelock. She hugged her dress-up purse under her arm. She turned left at the corner and there was Harbor Body and Fender, with the peeling green garage doors already hoisted up and the cavernous interior smelling of some sharp-scented paint that made her think of nail polish.
She had her check all ready and the manager said the keys were in the car, so in no time she was free to go. The car was parked toward the rear of the shop, an elderly gray-blue Dodge. It looked better than it had in years. They had straightened the rear bumper, replaced the mangled trunk lid, ironed out a half-dozen crimps here and there, and covered over the dapples of rust on the doors. Ira was right: no need to buy a new car after all. She slid behind the wheel. When she turned the ignition key, the radio came on—Mel Spruce’s AM Baltimore, a call-in talk show. She let it run, for the moment. She adjusted the seat, which had been moved back for someone taller, and she tilted the rearview mirror downward. Her own face flashed toward her, round and slightly shiny, her blue eyes quirked at the inner corners as if she were worried about something when in fact she was only straining to see in the gloom. She shifted gears and sailed smoothly toward the front of the shop, where the manager stood frowning at a clipboard just outside his office door.
Today’s question on AM Baltimore was: “What Makes an Ideal Marriage?” A woman was phoning in to say it was common interests. “Like if you both watch the same kind of programs on TV,” she explained. Maggie couldn’t care less what made an ideal marriage. (She’d been married twenty-eight years.) She rolled down her window and called, “Bye now!” and the manager glanced up from his clipboard. She glided past him—a woman in charge of herself, for once, lipsticked and medium-heeled and driving an undented car.
A soft voice on the radio said, “Well, I’m about to remarry? The first time was purely for love? It was genuine, true love and it didn’t work at all. Next Saturday I’m marrying for security.”
Maggie looked over at the dial and said, “Fiona?”
She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender—the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.
Back when Maggie played baseball with her brothers, she used to get hurt but say she was fine, for fear they would make her quit. She’d pick herself up and run on without a limp, even if her knee was killing her. Now she was reminded of that, for when the manager rushed over, shouting, “What the . . .? Are you all right?” she stared straight ahead in a dignified way and told him, “Certainly. Why do you ask?” and drove on before the Pepsi driver could climb out of his truck, which was probably just as well considering the look on his face. But in fact her fender was making a very upsetting noise, something like a piece of tin dragging over gravel, so as soon as she’d turned the corner and the two men—one scratching his head, one waving his arms—had disappeared from her rearview mirror, she came to a stop. Fiona was not on the radio anymore. Instead a woman with a raspy tenor was comparing her five husbands. Maggie cut the motor and got out. She could see what was causing the trouble. The fender was crumpled inward so the tire was hitting against it; she was surprised the wheel could turn, even. She squatted on the curb, grasped the rim of the fender in both hands, and tugged. (She remembered hunkering low in the tall grass of the outfield and stealthily, wincingly peeling her jeans leg away from the patch of blood on her knee.) Flakes of gray-blue paint fell into her lap. Someone passed on the sidewalk behind her but she pretended not to notice and tugged again. This time the fender moved, not far but enough to clear the tire, and she stood up and dusted off her hands. Then she climbed back inside the car but for a minute simply sat there. “Fiona!” she said again. When she restarted the engine, the radio was advertising bank loans and she switched it off.
Ira was waiting in front of his store, unfamiliar and oddly dashing in his navy suit. A shock of ropy black, gray-threaded hair hung over his forehead. Above him a metal sign swung in the breeze: sam’s frame shop. picture framing. matting. your needlework professionally displayed. Sam was Ira’s father, who had not had a thing to do with the business since coming down with a “weak heart” thirty years before. Maggie always put “weak heart” in quotation marks. She made a point of ignoring the apartment windows above the shop, where Sam spent his cramped, idle, querulous days with Ira’s two sisters. He would probably be standing there watching. She parked next to the curb and slid over to the passenger seat.
Ira’s expression was a study as he approached the car. Starting out pleased and approving, he rounded the hood and drew up short when he came upon the left fender. His long, bony, olive face grew longer. His eyes, already so narrow you couldn’t be sure if they were black or merely dark brown, turned to puzzled, downward-slanting slits. He opened the door and got in and gave her a sorrowful stare.
“There was an unexpected situation,” Maggie told him.
“Just between here and the body shop?”
“I heard Fiona on the radio.”
“That’s five blocks! Just five or six blocks.”
“Ira, Fiona’s getting married.”
He gave up thinking of the car, she was relieved to see. Something cleared on his forehead. He looked at her a moment and then said, “Fiona who?”
“Fiona your daughter-in-law, Ira. How many Fionas do we know? Fiona the mother of your only grandchild, and now she’s up and marrying some total stranger purely for security.”
Ira slid the seat farther back and then pulled away from the curb. He seemed to be listening for something—perhaps for the sound of the wheel hitting. But evidently her tug on the fender had done the trick. He said, “Where’d you hear this?”
“On the radio while I was driving.”
“They’d announce a thing like that on the radio?”
“She telephoned it in.”
“That seems kind of . . . self-important, if you want my honest opinion,” Ira said.
“No, she was just—and she said that Jesse was the only one she’d ever truly loved.”
“She said this on the radio?”
“It was a talk show, Ira.”
“Well, I don’t know why everyone has to go spilling their guts in public these days,” Ira said.
“Do you suppose Jesse could have been listening?” Maggie asked. The thought had just occurred to her.
“Jesse? At this hour? He’s doing well if he’s up before noon.”
Maggie didn’t argue with that, although she could have. The fact was that Jesse was an early riser, and anyhow, he worked on Saturdays. What Ira was implying was that he was shiftless. (Ira was much harder on their son than Maggie was. He didn’t see half as many good points to him.) She faced forward and watched the shops and houses sliding past, the few pedestrians out with their dogs. This had been the driest summer in memory and the sidewalks had a chalky look. The air hung like gauze. A boy in front of Poor Man’s Grocery was tenderly dusting his bicycle spokes with a cloth.
“So you started out on Empry Street,” Ira said.
“Where the body shop is.”
“Yes, Empry Street.”
“And then cut over to Daimler . . .”
He was back on the subject of the fender. She said, “I did it driving out of the garage.”
“You mean right there? Right at the body shop?”
“I went to hit the brake but I hit the gas instead.”
“How could that happen?”
“Well, Fiona came on the radio and I was startled.”
“I mean the brake isn’t something you have to think about, Maggie. You’ve been driving since you were sixteen years old. How could you mix up the brake with the gas pedal?”
“I just did, Ira. All right? I just got startled and I did. So let’s drop it.”
“I mean a brake is more or less reflex.”
“If it means so much to you I’ll pay for it out of my salary.”
Now it was his turn to hold his tongue. She saw him start to speak and then change his mind. (Her salary was laughable. She tended old folks in a nursing home.)
If they’d had more warning, she thought, she would have cleaned the car’s interior before they set out. The dashboard was littered with parking-lot stubs. Soft-drink cups and paper napkins covered the floor at her feet. Also there were loops of black and red wire sagging beneath the glove compartment; nudge them accidentally as you crossed your legs and you’d disconnect the radio. She considered that to be Ira’s doing. Men just generated wires and cords and electrical tape everywhere they went, somehow. They might not even be aware of it.
Reading Group Guide
1. This novel takes place in one day. What effect does this time frame have on the story? Why do you think the author constructed the book this way? What day is it–what makes it signiﬁcant? Why are emotions running high?
2. Maggie’s friend Serena is deﬁnitely a secondary character, but over the course of the novel, she comes up again and again. What kind of childhood did Serena have? What kind of marriage? What is her relationship to Maggie, and to Ira? Why is her character integral to this book?
3. Did Ira do the right thing to take over his dad’s business and assume the care of his sisters? Did he let himself be trapped? Should he have gone to med school?
4. Ira’s sisters are both, to a greater and lesser degree, mentally ill. How has their illness affected the family? How has it affected Ira and Maggie and their family life?
5. Ira doesn’t talk much–he plays solitaire, whistles, and when he does talk, he “tells the truth.” Is his truth-telling appropriate or harmful? Is it more true or “right” than Maggie’s little white lies and exaggerations
6. Breathing Lessons in some ways is a typical journey story, in which people set forth, have adventures, and end up with a new perspective. Maggie and Ira’s journey is both physical and emotional. Where do they go? Whom do they encounter? What happens? Where do they end up?
7. Did you ﬁnd Maggie irritating or amusing? Do you think she is a nice person? Why did she never go to college? Do you think, as her daughter, Daisy, thinks, that Maggie is ordinary? Do you think, as her husband, Ira, does, that she behaves as if this is a practice life?
8. This book is written in three parts. Why? How do the different parts function? Why does the second part exist?
9. Mr. Otis tells a story about his dog Bessie, who couldn’t fetch her ball when it landed on a chair–she would put her nose between the spindles and whine, never thinking to walk around to the front of the chair. “Blind in spots,” says Mr. Otis. How and when does the image of spindles occur elsewhere in the novel?
10. Although there are all sorts of instruction in life for driving and cooking and even breathing, there are few lessons on how to live life. People muddle along. What are the lessons you wish some of these characters had learned?
11. The book opens with a funeral–a funeral that’s also like a high school reunion, where Maggie and Ira see old friends and the toll age and death have taken on them. This is just the ﬁrst loss we encounter in the book. What are other losses?
12. Maggie intercepts Fiona at an abortion clinic to talk her into having the baby. How does Maggie’s opinion differ from those of the protesters outside the clinic? Is Maggie pro-choice or antiabortion, or can you tell? Why is her argument persuasive? Do you think Fiona would have gone through with the abortion if Maggie hadn’t talked to her?
13. Maggie has a habit of making things up–lying, you might say, or putting a “hopeful” spin on things. With her well-intended “exaggerations” or lies, she makes people do things that they otherwise might not have done. When are these little lies benign in the book? When do they have a more profound, even destructive result?
14. Jesse and Fiona are very young when they marry. What are their expectations? What disappoints them? What breaks up the marriage? Could the marriage have been saved? Do you agree with Maggie that they still love each other?
15. Maggie assumes that most people look at her marriage with envy and is surprised to hear otherwise. What does her marriage look like from the inside, from her point of view? How do you think Ira regards it? Jesse? Daisy? What does the marriage look like to you?
16. By bedtime, Maggie and Ira have drawn close to each other and are more ready to embark together on a life without having children at home. Do you think that the day’s events also served Leroy well? And the others–Serena, Mr. Otis, Fiona, Leroy– do you think they are better off for their encounters with Ira and Maggie?