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Hell is paved with good intentions

November 23, 2012 25 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.

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