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Hell is paved with good intentions

November 23, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Breathing lessons by Anne Tyler. 1989. French title: Leçons de conduite 

Welcome to this month’s reading choice for our Book Club and it’s the first one we all read in English. I suggested this book after Caroline reviewed Back When We Were Grownups and several bloggers recommended Breathing Lessons in the comments. Let’s say it right away, we all enjoyed it a lot and would like to read other books by Anne Tyler.

In this novel, Maggie and Ira have been married for more than twenty years, their children are grown-ups now, Jessie doesn’t live with them anymore and their daughter Daisy is now leaving for college. This morning, Maggie and Ira are driving from Baltimore where they live and work to New Hampshire to attend their friend Max’s funeral. Max was married to Serena, Maggie’s best friend from high school. When she picks up their car at the workshop, Maggie hears Fiona, her former daughter-in-law on the radio. Fiona says she’s getting married and that this time, she’s marrying for safety when she married for love the first time. Immediately, Maggie jumps to the conclusion that Fiona still loves Jessie and that their divorce is a mistake. She recalls that she hasn’t seen her grand-daughter Leroy for a while, that Fiona lives on the way to Serena’s place. One thing leading to another, she decides she needs to go to Fiona and suggest to babysit Leroy while Fiona is on her honeymoon.

The whole book takes place within a day and the journey back and forth to the funeral is the opportunity for Maggie and Ira to think about their lives. Meanwhile, Maggie works at her little project of getting Fiona and Jessie back together. The trip is an opportunity to chew over the past and all the incidents that occur during their trip enforce our vision of the characters. The narrative alternates between Maggie and Ira, which gives us a better perspective on the events.

Oh dear, Maggie is annoying. She’s in the category of people who meddle in other people’s lives to bring them happiness. And most of the time, the more they interfere, the worse it gets. Maggie can’t see the world as it is; she sees things through a pink filter and always twists the events so that they fit with her vision of what the situation should be. Her relationship with Ira started on a misunderstanding and her misplaced urge to act: she heard on the grapevine that Ira was dead, decided to write a letter of heartfelt condolences to his father. But Ira wasn’t dead, the grapevine was wrong, Ira was intrigued that she was so saddened by his supposed death and so their relationship started.

Maggie isn’t satisfied with thinking about other people’s lives, she needs to take action to make things right. She interfered in her son’s and daughter-in-law’s marriage. The young couple lived with Ira and her during and after Fiona’s untimely pregnancy. Without knowing it, Maggie took control and never let the young couple a chance to grow up. She’s stifling. She never sees things how they are but can have a bit of indsight about her flaws:

She was in trouble with everybody in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn’t seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the world were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines—something like a poorly printed newspaper ad—and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place.

I wondered how Ira could suffer her. But he loves her despite all her flaws, probably because she has the courage to act and go for what she wants. She doesn’t fear rejection or ridicule. When she’s convinced she’s right, she’s like a freight train, nothing can stop her. Ira has issues too; he wanted to be a doctor but his needy father and sisters clung to him, smothered him and prevented him from going to college. He sees himself as a failure and only his marriage with Maggie seems a good thing in his life. Ira knows her well, knows that her flaws are also her qualities. Maggie works in a nursing home; she enjoys taking care of elderly people and Ira doesn’t understand what she sees in her job:

And it was wasteful to devote your working life to people who forgot you the instant you left their bedsides, as Ira was forever pointing out. Oh, it was also admirably selfless, he supposed. But he didn’t know how Maggie endured the impermanence, the lack of permanent results—those feeble, senile patients who confused her with a long-dead mother or a sister who’d insulted them back in 1928.

But Maggie likes it and this is something commendable. In a way, her job allows her to step in someone else’s life, interact with them and bring them comfort and a bit of happiness. Making people happy makes her happy.

I enjoyed this book a lot even if Maggie infuriated me most of the time. Someone in my family resembles her, although she doesn’t meddle as much as Maggie but she always sees things through her own set of distorting glasses and always feel the urge to give unwanted advice. In the end, these people are exhausting. They never take what you say literally but always imagine something else. Whatever you say, you can’t divert Maggie from her path. Here’s Maggie to Ira when he tries to reason with her:

“One thing about you that I really cannot stand,” she said, “is how you act so superior. We can’t have just a civilized back-and-forth discussion; oh, no. No, you have to make a point of how illogical I am, what a whifflehead I am, how you’re so cool and above it all.”

I know the feeling; you try to have a rational conversation and everything you say is twisted a way you never imagine it could be and you end up saying nothing as it is useless to talk.

Maggie tends to embroider the facts to see a comforting picture that suits her. The person I know tends to see a glass empty even if it’s actually half full. All in all, you can’t reason with Maggie; you can’t reason with the person I know. Their husbands indulge them, partly by cowardice and partly because they’ve learned with the years that no matter what they say, their wives won’t change their course of action. And as these women have their heart at the right place and mean well, it’s hard to hold a grudge against them. But still, they can do irreparable damage.

As you can read, this novel hit home and I could relate to the characters. The novel is also full of thoughts about parenthood and marriage. Maggie comes back to her life as a mother and she says:

And afterward: I remember leaving the hospital with Jesse and thinking, ‘Wait. Are they going to let me just walk off with him? I don’t know beans about babies! I don’t have a license to do this. Ira and I are just amateurs.’ I mean you’re given all these lessons for the unimportant things—piano-playing, typing. You’re given years and years of lessons in how to balance equations, which Lord knows you will never have to do in normal life. But how about parenthood? Or marriage, either, come to think of it. Before you can drive a car you need a state-approved course of instruction, but driving a car is nothing, nothing, compared to living day in and day out with a husband and raising up a new human being.”

I think every couple had that feeling when they first came home with their infant. Let’s face it, it’s scary and the only comforting thought is that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t manage. Maggie and Ira are poor parents, in my opinion. They didn’t set enough boundaries to Jessie, Maggie out of indulgence and Ira out of laziness. Daisy learnt how to live with them with limited contact, being a self-sufficient child. Maggie wants to be loved and she can’t put boundaries to her children because she couldn’t bear it if they momentarily hated her for preventing them from doing what they want.

Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize with this novel; I’m not sure it’s mind-blowing enough to deserve such a prize. I had a wonderful time reading it, I wanted to know what would happen and what had happened in the past of this family. The style is good, fluent, easy to read but it’s not innovative. I could compare it to Alison Lurie. The descriptions are spot on, the way she unravels the characters’ minds, puts on the right detail for you to picture a scene or understand the feelings. The funeral is hilarious and sad at the same time.

It’s about the life of common people, about how we are all amateurs when it comes to living. We would like to be entitled to a draft version of our life and then do it all over with the proper hindsight.

  1. November 23, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I only ever tried one novel by this author, The Accidental Tourist, which I couldn’t even finish. At the start of the review when you mentioned how Maggie’s decision, I wondered how you’d take the rest of the novel as I knew Maggie would be someone who would annoy you. So it’s to Tyler’s credit that you enjoyed the book.

    Mothers in laws and their daughters in laws…very often troubled relationships. Will you try another by Tyler?


    • November 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm

      You really know me well by now if you guessed Maggie would annoy me.
      Yes, I want to read something else by her. Proabably the one Caroline reviewed, she liked it and it’s a good recommendation for me.

      This is not the usual mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship.

      Maggie thinks deep inside that as long as she is motivated by love, she can’t do any harm. Which is utterly untrue.


      • November 23, 2012 at 11:45 pm

        I looked up the one caroline mentioned (thinking perhaps I’d been too harsh on Tyler) and one review says there are characters named NoNo, Biddy, and Min Foo. I don’t know if I could take that.


        • November 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm

          Hmmm. I wonder if they translated the names in the French version… 🙂


  2. November 23, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I’m a fan of Anne Tyler. She’s not a showy writer or an intellectual writer, but my goodness me is she good at knowing her way around the human heart. Plus, her families all seem so real, and peopled with characters whose best qualities are also their worst faults. I really like her descriptions because they seem so throwaway but are poetically precise. So yes, you could say I’m a fan! But I think you need to have your own family to appreciate her, or else you don’t get the depth of what’s she’s doing. I’ve also very much enjoyed Saint Maybe, Back When We Were Grown-Ups, Digging to America, and The Accidental Tourist.


    • November 24, 2012 at 12:11 am

      I totally agree with your description of her work even if I’m not sure about the poetry. She’s good at describing nuances and her families are true-to-life. She knows how to describe the human heart, that’s sure.

      Her writing lacks of that little something that knocks you down and makes you pause and think in awe “what an artist!”


  3. November 24, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Hey, i have read this one! Now that was a long time ago. litlove describes Tyler perfectly.

    I disagree with this: Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize with this novel; I’m not sure it’s mind-blowing enough to deserve such a prize. If you look through a list of Pulitzer fiction winners, I believe you will conclude that Breathing Lessons is above average in mind-blowingness.

    Maybe you are thinking of a theoretical Pulitzer. Then I do agree with you.


    • November 24, 2012 at 12:22 am

      What? You’ve read novel written after 1950? (kidding)

      What I meant by my Pulitzer Prize comment is what I wrote to Litlove: she’s excellent but not that innovative. Her style flows very well, she takes you from one place to another, from a feeling to another very effortlessly but I prefer stronger prose. Annie Proulx or Toni Morrison have something in their style that Anne Tyler doesn’t have even if her descriptions of feelings, family dynamics and the complexity of relationships are excellent.
      I can’t explain this clearly, I lack the analytical tools to develop what I think properly. That’s what happens when you have a degree in business and not in literature.

      But you’re probably right, I must think of theoretical Pulitzer.


      • November 24, 2012 at 1:05 am

        You are right – Tyler is not an innovator. She has a clear voice, but it is not nearly as distinct as that of Morrison or Proulx – good examples! – who push harder against the boundaries of fiction.

        Morrison and Proulx are more interested in testing how words work. Tyler uses words in more conventional ways. Some of her insights into family behavior are unconventional, but not her language.

        GIven how few writers match her clarity, humor, and sense, though, I begin to think dark thoughts about language and innovation. No, no, I banish those thoughts!


        • November 24, 2012 at 9:49 am

          That’s what I meant.

          I’m not a Tony Morrison fan but I like Annie Proulx a lot. She can be very funny: have you tried her short story I’ve Always Loved this Place? She plays Dante and the narrator of the story is the Devil who wants to redecorate hell. Hilarious. I wrote a billet about it.

          In my head, there are two kinds of language innovations: one stems from literary research and experiment (Nouveau Roman or oulipo) with grammar twists and the other one stems from a different use of common language in a funny or poetical way. (Romain Gary, John Fante) I guess you know where my heart goes although I have respect for the artistic achievements of the others. Of course this isn’t backed up by any literary theories or professors. Just my humble opinion.


  4. November 24, 2012 at 3:34 am

    Oh maybe. Like Guy, I tried something by Tyler which failed to impress, was there one about a restaurant? Picking apart domestic relationships is not usually all that fascinating IMO, I can eavesdrop on navel-gazing conversations in a cafe if that’s what interests me, not spend days reading a novel about it. There are exceptions (e.g. Annabel Smith’s Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) but they usually offer more than just a troubled relationship to observe and perhaps identify with.
    But your recommendation gives me pause in a way that the Pulitzer Prize failed to do. It will go onto my ‘maybe if I see it at the library during the lazy summer holidays’ list…


    • November 24, 2012 at 9:58 am

      You reminded me I forgot to put it in the Beach & Public Transport category. Thanks.

      I can understand why you may think her plot is thin or mundane and I understand that you wouldn’t want to read about mundane relationships.

      That’s a deep question: shall literature only tell non-mundane stories, stories that only happen in books? Or only talk about crazy families with strange characters? I don’t think so. Otherwise it backfires and we have the same old complain that literature is too far away from real life.

      This is why Anne Tyler is good: she manages to interest us to a mundane family and she squeezes out the universal bit out of it, the very bit that gets to any of us and makes us think “I know someone like her” or “I’ve already felt that way”


  5. November 24, 2012 at 9:02 am

    I’m glad you liked this and thanks for the link.
    I have collected quite a few of her books by now and will read them all one day. Litlove wrote a great review about another one not that long ago.
    I see what you mean about The Pulitzer but I guess Tom has replied to that. She isn’t a stylist like others but she is an admirable writer. I liked the charcaters in the novel I read better and just enjoyed being in their lives althoug they are about as different from mine as possible.
    I usually hate it when charcaters have silly names but I didn’t mind it in this case. It’s the way how some families choose such names for their members.
    The one Lisa mentions is said to be one of the best btw. but if you don’t like “domestic fiction” the Tyler would make you run, no matter which one you pick.
    I liked your last sentence about us all being amateurs at life. 🙂


    • November 24, 2012 at 10:03 am

      There are quite a few silly nicknames in Proust. Personnally, I hate nicknames like Lulu or Momo; they’re stupid and I won’t use them.

      There are mixed comments about Anne Tyler; that’s interesting. I’ll try another one.


  6. November 24, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    I must say Emma, that you paint such a vivid picture of the characters in this book.

    I think that I would find Maggie a difficult person to read about as this kind of person drives me insane too! I might even find the book difficult to get through as a result. However it does sound very good.


    • November 25, 2012 at 6:53 pm

      I’m sorry that my description of Maggie puts you off the book but it’s better to know it beforehand, isn’t it?


      • November 25, 2012 at 7:36 pm

        Indeed it is true.

        This is more about my own shortcomings as a reader, however. One really should never be hesitant to read stories about flawed characters.


  7. December 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    She does sound a very strong storyteller, which can be an underappreciated virtue (underappreciated by critics anyway, not so much by wider readerships). Storytelling though isn’t one of my main interests in books, and when I want it I tend to lean towards genre, so I’ll probably give this one a miss well crafted as it sounds.

    Regarding the Pulitzer I don’t take it remotely seriously as a literary prize (or for that matter as a peace prize, the science one seems ok but that may be just because I don’t know much about it).

    Capturing the mundane though, that’s a gift. Many authors don’t know the mundane well enough to write about it at all, which is why there are so many books about what it’s like to be a struggling young author and so few about being an insurance claims adjuster.

    An adjuster though, with two kids, an only intermittently supportive spouse, an aging parent and a commitment to a weekly netball game that seems somehow to have become a second job rather than a hobby may not face the sort of dramas which sound exciting but they are in fact the dramas which can break you. Writing about those dramas without falling into soap opera or being boring is a real challenge.

    The film Tokyo Story is (rightly) widely regarded as a masterpiece, even though almost nothing happens in it beyond an unsuccessful visit by aging parents to their grown up children. It’s a masterpiece in part because it shows tragedy in the quotidian. Any idiot can show tragedy in the fall of kings; showing it in the disappointment of a bus driver passed over for a minor promotion takes much more skill.


    • December 12, 2012 at 10:10 pm

      I perfectly agree with you about writing engrossing books about the mundane. It’s not easily done and yet it seems so…obvious when it’s well done. It’s the obvious feeling that differenciate gifted writers from others.

      I recommend Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke: he explains so well that he wants his poetry to come from himself, from everyday life and feelings. It’s a short book, very human; I think it would suit you. Have a look at Litlove’s love post to Rilke; she says it a lot better than me. http://litlove.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/loving-rilke/

      PS: I didn’t know the word quotidian. Sounds so French!


  8. August 5, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Loved your review, Emma. I liked what you said about Maggie – that she moves like a freight train. She really does and the way she doesn’t give up with her meddling even in the last scene, made me smile 🙂 I was very irritated with Maggie in the beginning, but I warmed up to her after a while and I liked her after that, because eventhough she is meddlesome, she is warm and affectionate at heart and she tries to make others happy in her own way. Unfortunately, she tries to impose her own version of happiness on others. I liked very much your thought on how we would like to have a draft version of our lives so that we can try out different things till we get it right.


    • August 5, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Your review is excellent, Vishy.
      About Maggie bwing meddlesome and kind. That’s the problem with the Maggies of this world. They are toxic but as they are also awfully nice and affectionate and driven by the best intentions, it’s hard to stay mad with them for long. People hardly fight with them because it’s difficult to be hard with someone who meant no harm.


      • August 5, 2013 at 10:30 am

        Thanks Emma. Your comment on Maggies of the world made me remember something that I read by a local writer in an introduction to his book. He had said that sometimes people use love and affection to influence and sometimes bully others to do what they want or impose their version of happiness on others, and eventhough their actions start from love, it is still bullying. I found that quite insightful when I read it, and when I think about Maggie, I think she was probably trying to do that, maybe without realizing the adverse outcome that her meddling might cause. I liked very much what you said about such people – that it is very difficult to fight with them. It is very true.


        • August 6, 2013 at 3:11 pm

          It think it happens more often than we’d think. Especially in parent-children relationships.


          • August 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm

            I agree with you. That is very true.


  1. August 4, 2013 at 11:41 am

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