There are a few things that one immediately notices about Anne Tyler's novels. Firstly, there's the fact that there are so many of them - Anne Tyler's unique productivity is comparable to that of Joyce Carol Oates. Then, there are the titles - The Beginner's Goodbye, The Amateur Marriage, The Accidental Tourist. These titles immediately cast a sense of longing that reflects in the down-to-earth narrations and characterizations within. And with Breathing Lessons, Tyler's eleventh novel, some other things are apparent. The cover art depicts birds flying in formation, drawing an infinity in the sky. And the book won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which might mean something.
Breathing Lessons follows a day in the lives of Maggie and Ira Moran, in which the couple travel to attend a funeral, get caught in the act, and attempt to restore their son's relationship with their daughter-in-law. It's hardly a Dan Brown "novel", which is surely a good thing. But as in a Dan Brown novel, the reader does feel as if more than one day has passed; one steps out of Tyler's world feeling weighted with an entire lifetime of experience. And thus the novel highlights Tyler's singular gift for understanding human relationships and her ability to create revelatory novels out of seemingly simplistic stories.
The novel is founded upon relationships - Maggie and Ira's bickering-elderly-couple marriage; their son's child-in-the-middle divorce; their interactions with long-time-no-see friends. And the novel seems to argue that humans live for relationships, that even a soured relationship is preferable to no relationship at all. Maggie is shocked by what her life has become, an unquestioning reliance on another human being. She realizes that her relationship with Ira has become something similar to breathing- something that is usually unnoticed until trouble arises, but absolutely essential. And just as we aren't taught how to breathe, we aren't taught how to grow so close to another person that we know them better than we know ourselves -
“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.”
This sentiment is very similar to the one offered by Natalia Ginzburg in her personal essay, He and I. The majority of the essay is dominated by a back-and-forth comparison of Ginzburg's nature and that of her husband. These comparisons demonstrate Ginzburg's utter familiarity with her husband's personality and her tolerance of his less-appealing characteristics. The constant "He is this... I am this..." may alienate and even infuriate some readers, but it does set up an overwhelming last paragraph -
"If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street."
Ginzburg marvels at how two young acquaintances, "so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever" could live to understand one another's habits and characteristics so exhaustively. Without the countless "He and I" comparisons, the last paragraph loses almost all effect. The occasional reader who lost interest in the dizzying description comprising most of the essay is a small sacrifice. The revelation offered at the end is in effect a reward for the dedicated reader's trust in Ginzburg's ability to deliver. The same applies to Anne Tyler's embrace of Ira and Maggie's story. The revelations scattered throughout Breathing Lessons are little rewards for the reader's trust, Tyler's way of honoring the author's side of the contract. The dedicated reader is rewarded; the reader who is "so ready to say goodbye" leaves empty-handed.