Breathing Lessons is the story of a single afternoon in the marriage of Ira and Maggie, as they take a road trip to attend an old friend’s funeral. Along the way, they encounter some unique characters, reminisce about their lives together and take a detour to attempt to mend their relationships with their ex-daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
There. That’s the plot summary for this book, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what really happens. Breathing Lessons is a case study of a marriage. I could write this review to be full of the usual platitudes that are on the back of a book like this, but Breathing Lessons deserves better than that. This book is superb. It only takes one afternoon for Anne Tyler to illuminate perfectly what Ira and Maggie’s whole marriage is like.
If you’ve spent any time on Buzzfeed, you’ve seen this tweet:
Breathing Lessons is basically a 300-page expansion of this tweet. That may sound like an insult, but imagine how good of a writer someone needs to be to take the banality of marriage and make it into a book that never, at any point, grew stale, boring, or trite. There is nothing special or noteworthy about Ira and Maggie and their marriage, so the skill involved in making them worth reading about is considerable (Tyler won a Pulitzer for this book). They are two average people in an average marriage, no more or less happy than most people you know.
Normally, I don’t like books like this, that are firmly grounded in a depressing reality, but Anne Tyler is a wizard with words. Think of an average afternoon you spent with your partner, running errands or visiting family, and then think about how hard it would be to turn that afternoon into something that other people would actually want to read about. Breathing Lessons is sad, it’s true, but it’s also hilarious, sweet, and above all, it’s just really well done.