I could have guessed before starting Breathing Lessons that the book would involve an ordinary family in Baltimore facing problems in an awkward but genuine way and somehow bumbling through to a moderately happy and definitely realistic end. That description fits every Anne Tyler book I’ve read and it fits this one too.
Unfortunately, this book sticks close to the basic theme without the variations that made the others I’ve read more interesting. For instance, Digging to America applies the basic theme to immigrant families; The Amateur Marriage takes the story further, to a post-divorce phase; The Accidental Tourist takes the show on the road to Paris; and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant turns it around to the children’s perspective.
In contrast, Breathing Lessons is the basic story. It takes place in one day, when Ira and Maggie Moran drive to a funeral and, on the way back, stop to visit their granddaughter in Maggie’s attempt to reconcile their son and former daughter-in-law. In describing the events of the day, Tyler tells the story of the Morans’ courtship, marriage, and children’s lives. She does it with her typical and impressive authenticity.
My only problem was that Tyler’s authenticity seemed too typical. Stripped of the variations that livened up the other books, Breathing Lessons lacked a hook to grab my attention. If this had been the first Anne Tyler book I ever read, I would have loved it. But having read four others already, I felt like I was covering old territory with this one.
Tyler won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons. It was my Pulitzer choice for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, American Version challenge.