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Literature / Breathing Lessons

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"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."

Breathing Lessons is a 1989 novel by Anne Tyler.

Ira and Maggie Moran are a married couple pushing fifty. Maggie is excitable and hyperactive and prone to meddling: her husband is calm and taciturn and tolerates her flights of fancy. They have their frustrations and disappointments in life, the biggest of which is their older child, their son Jesse. Jesse knocked up his girlfriend Fiona when they were only seventeen, and they got married. Unfortunately the marriage ended in failure within a year and Fiona left with their daughter Leroy; the Morans haven't seen their granddaughter in years. If that weren't bad enough, Jesse has dreams of being a rock star and is stuck in an extended adolescence with his garage band, while he shifts from job to job.

The story is set over the course of a single day. Ira and Maggie are going to the funeral of their old friend Serena's husband Max. Back home, their daughter Daisy is getting ready to go to college the very next day. Maggie, who is prone to sudden fits of enthusiasm, hits on an idea. They will drop by Fiona's house, cajole her into coming back home with them, and maybe, just maybe, get her back together with Jesse.


  • As You Know: Some exposition is given out in the opening pages when Maggie tells Ira that Fiona is getting married, Ira says "Fiona who?" and Maggie shoots back with "Fiona your daughter-in-law!"
  • Bittersweet Ending: Maggie's attempt to get Jesse and Fiona back together is a complete disaster, and given how badly it backfired Maggie seems likely to remain estranged from Fiona and the granddaughter that she hasn't seen for years. Jesse will probably remain a loser. Daisy is still moving away, which will leave the Morans with an empty nest. But Maggie has reconnected with her old friend Serena, and she has renewed an emotional connection with Ira, who is a true life partner despite their difficulties.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: Ira thinks of his wife as "a satisfying series of handfuls, soft silky breasts, and a creamy swell of bottom." He does not approve of her attempts to lose weight.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: One single day, although that is played with as there are extensive flashbacks that recount Ira and Maggie's courtship and marriage, Jesse and Fiona's marriage, Fiona giving birth, Fiona walking out, etc.
  • Genki Girl: Maggie is very emotional and excitable and gets carried away with flights of enthusiasm, like when she gets it into her head to get Jesse and Fiona back together.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Played with. Fiona is actually at the door of the abortion clinic when Maggie intercepts her, reassures her that Jesse does want the baby, and talks her into getting married. As it happens, while Maggie does get a granddaughter out of the deal, it turns out to be ill-considered. Jesse's temporary enthusiasm for fatherhood wanes, as does his interest in marriage, and he is unable to get and hold a job. They get divorced within a year and Fiona is left as a single mom with an intermittently employed husband who is often late with the child-support check.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Ira and Maggie are halfway to having sex at Max's funeral when Serena barges in on them. She flies into a rage and throws them out.
  • Kids Play Matchmaker: Parents play matchmaker, in the case of Maggie, who is convinced that Fiona and Jesse still love each other and only need a nudge to get married again. Contrary to how this trope usually plays out, it's a fiasco. Not only is Jesse not interested in getting back with Fiona, he's living with another woman, as Ira baldly states when things come to a head. The white lies that Maggie told about how Jesse was still pining for Fiona bite her in the ass, as everyone gets angry and little Leroy, who watches the argument, is shocked.
  • Meet Cute: Ira and Maggie are only the vaguest of acquaintances, but when a teenaged Maggie hears that Ira joined the army and got killed in a training accident, she writes a condolence letter. It turns out that it was Monty Rand who got killed, not Ira Moran, and Ira brings this up when he sees Maggie at church. Soon they are married.
  • No-Tell Motel: The Blue Hen Motel is where young people go to get it on when Maggie was a teenager in the '50s. She wonders what she'll do if her boyfriend Boris ever invites her there.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Ira looks Maggie up after she writes a letter of condolence to his father, thinking that he had died. It was a different boy with a similar name.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The novel is told in three long parts, the first from Maggie's POV, the second from Ira's POV, and the third from Maggie's POV again.
  • Teen Pregnancy: High school senior Jesse knocks high school senior Fiona up. Maggie maneuvers things so that they get married.
  • Title Drop: The "breathing lessons" are the lessons a heavily pregnant Fiona takes along with Maggie's encouragement. This resonates with a comment Maggie makes later about how you have to get a license to do stuff like drive a car but there are no lessons or licenses for marriage and parenthood.
  • Tomboyish Name: Why Jesse and Fiona named their daughter "Leroy" isn't really explained, although Jesse seemed to expect a boy. Leroy does turn out to be rather tomboyish, as she likes to throw a baseball around.
  • Tragic Dropout: Ira had plans when he was young to go to college and then to medical school. But right around the time that he was graduating from high school, his father, who owned the family business (a frame shop), declared that he had a heart ailment and couldn't work anymore. Worse, Ira has two sisters, one of whom is mentally impaired and the other of whom is mentally ill/agoraphobic. He finds himself stuck in the frame shop, running the business, supporting all of them. Thirty years later he's still bitter.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Serena "drew out a knot of Kleenex from her V neckline" when she starts crying at the funeral.
  • Women Drivers: Maggie manages to have a fender-bender with a truck as she's leaving an auto body shop when she hears what she thinks is Fiona on the radio. Later she recalls the time she managed to shift her car into reverse on the highway. When they have to back the car out of Fiona's house, sure enough, Maggie hits the wrong pedal and runs into the lamppost. And for that matter, Fiona tells Maggie about how she once got into an accident because she signaled to turn right when she was actually turning left.