Picks and Pans Review: Breathing Lessons

updated 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Anne Tyler

If you're thinking of going into whaling, you read Herman Melville. If you're thinking of trying your hand at amateur detective work, you read Agatha Christie. If you're planning on a career as a spy, you read John le Carré. And this, Tyler's 11th novel, séhould be required reading for anyone who is thinking about becoming middle-aged. It is about a day in the life of Maggie and Ira Moran, a Baltimore couple in their late 40s. Maggie works in a nursing home, and Ira runs the family picture-framing business. They have a grown son who works as a motorcycle salesman and is separated from his wife; Ira and Maggie's daughter, Daisy, is about to leave for college. While Tyler tells their story with a light, easy, very funny touch, the novel is hardly inconsequential. "Oh, Ira," Maggie says, "what are we going to live for, all the rest of our lives?" Tyler devotes half the book to a funeral where it's impossible to separate the poignant moments from the hilarious. The new widow, Maggie's best friend, Serena, decides to have the funeral service conducted as a reenactment of her and husband Max's very '60s marriage, which included readings from Kahlil Gibran and songs performed by various guests. Though Ira balks at singing Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing at a funeral, Maggie and most of the other mourners dutifully go along with Serena's plan before returning to her home to watch movies of the wedding. Maggie loses track of the occasion for a while, but then it comes back to her: "Max Gill had actually gone and died. The striking thing about death, she thought, was its eventfulness. It made you see you were leading a real life. Real life at last, you could say." Tyler, writing in precise, understated language, maintains a difficult tension between Ira and Maggie. They are obviously devoted to each other—at least in the sense of having signed up for the duration—yet they argue and bicker ceaselessly. As they drive, they are talking about the young woman who married their son: " 'Love!' Ira said. 'She was 17 years old. She didn't know the first thing about love.' Maggie looked over at him. What was the first thing about love, she wanted to ask. But he was muttering at the oil truck now." Maggie acknowledges the "knobby, fumbling way she seemed to be progressing through her life." She intrudes, she imposes, she tries to stage manage people's lives; in the second part of the novel, she clumsily tries to engineer a reconciliation between her son and his wife. Ira is basically a straight man, but he is a subtly drawn character, a practical, painfully subdued man who sometimes just goes off to play solitaire and who relevant tunes relevant tunes—The Wichita Lineman when he goes outside for the laundry, for instance. He, like the book's other characters, has a grudging respect for Maggie's overbearing behavior, perhaps because even her most harebrained schemes usually make an outlandish kind of sense. While Maggie appears determined to defy old age, he is resigned to it. Tyler's attitude is sympathetic toward them both, and her message in this deceptively thoughtful book seems to be that what people can hope to accumulate as they grow older isn't wisdom. It is a sense of humor—at least enough to hold the confusion at bay and keep the illusions from losing all their magic. (Knopf, $18.95)

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