Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler

Maggie and Ira Moran have to spend a day travelling to the funeral of Maggie's oldest friend's husband, and on the way back decide to call in on their ex-daughter-in-law in order to see their only grandchild. The book tells the events of the day, with frequent excursions into Maggie or Ira's memory as they recall earlier events in their lives.

I picked this up at random at the library, but what a find - I think it's the best book I've read this year. It took me about twenty minutes to get into the feel of the characters, but once I did I was drawn in and really enjoyed myself. The writing is first-rate - the kind of thing that sounds so natural, but must have been carefully written and re-written. And a lot of work has gone into the structure of the story too: early in the book, it's mentioned that Maggie has borrowed one of her sister-in-law's wigs. It's not until quite a lot later that you find out about the sister-in-law and realise "oh yes, that's the origin of the wig".

Maggie is a bit of a klutz, appearing to bumble through life with good, but not always well thought through, intentions, while Ira appears more rational and down-to-earth. Most of the book is told from Maggie's point of view, which means her actions seem fairly reasonable, while Ira appears somewhat staid and unimaginative. But the bits told from Ira's point of view show that he has a very rich inner life, and make Maggie's actions seem inexplicable, her conversation full of random jumps and non-sequiturs.

I think one of the strengths of the book was how much she mentioned things that seemed inconsequential but made you feel like you were really there. On one occasion, when the car came off the road and stopped, "Ira was still gripping the wheel, and the keys were still swinging from the ignition, softly jingling against each other." When Fiona, the daughter-in-law appears, "She wore cut-off denim shorts and a T-shirt with some kind of writing across it". You can tell from this that Maggie isn't yet near enough to read what the writing says.

The book had some lovely images in it, and some metaphors that I can still remember: white lines "stitching" down a highway, a car going past "trailing threads of country music", and Maggie and Ira singing: "their vioces braided together on the chorus, and then sailed apart, only to reunite and twine around each other once again". It was sad and funny too: I was laughing out loud quite a lot.

This was a real joy to read. It's the first time since Middlemarch that I've found myself going back and listening to whole sections again, it was so good. And for only the second time (that I can think of), I'd gone out and bought a copy of the book before finishing listening to it. I look forward to reading more by Anne Tyler.

Completed : 28-Mar-2007 (audiobook, read by Kate Harper)

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