Review: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

a.k.a. My Near-Irrational Dislike of Maggie Moran

The brilliant thing about Tyler’s portrayal of Maggie is that we’re on her side at first. Sure, she’s flighty and haphazard, but she plainly means well. After her best friend (Serena) pressures her to sing at Max’s (Serena’s late husband) funeral, the reader feels Maggie’s shock and embarrassment when Ira hangs her out to dry. They were supposed to sing a duet, but he sits silently while another funeral-goer takes pity on her and sings along:

Maggie switched her attention to Ira. She wondered how he could sit there, so impervious. He’d have let her slog through that entire song alone; she knew that. She could have stumbled and stuttered and broken down; he would have watched as cooly as if she had nothing to do with him. Why not? he would say. What obligated him to sing some corny fifties song at a semi-stranger’s funeral? As usual, he’d be right. As usual, he’d be forcing Maggie to do the giving in. (Loc 1204)

What a jerk! And that last line—Maggie can’t even protest when smug Ira is always right…

Then the perspective flips to Ira. He develops into a steady person who has borne a heavy weight for a long time as the sole-supporter of his weak-hearted father, a mentally-challenged sister, and an agoraphobic sister. Maggie is the closest person he can depend on, but she can’t be counted on for anything: her distracted-driving regularly damages their car and her random lies to strangers can take hours to set right.

After the funeral, Maggie wants to visit their former daughter-in-law, Fiona. Maggie thinks Fiona might still love her son, Jesse, and she knows that Jesse still loves Fiona. As Maggie ponders the deep connections between her son and Fiona, there are hints that she remembers their relationship as better than it really was. Whatever ended their marriage compelled Fiona to take her daughter, Leroy, and run back to her family. To hear Maggie tell it, this Something Big was only one little skirmish in a long series.

At Fiona’s, Ira plays with Leroy while Maggie engineers a meeting between Fiona and Jesse. Once Fiona agrees to have dinner with them and Jesse, it’s time for a flashback: Why Fiona left Jesse and took their daughter with her:

When Fiona found out she was pregnant, she wanted an abortion and Jesse wanted the baby. He begged Maggie to intervene. He said he’d been reading a parenting book and was building a cradle for the baby. Convinced he wanted to be a father, Maggie found Fiona at the clinic and drove her home (to Maggie’s house). Fiona had second thoughts because she knew Jesse wouldn’t help with the child and, at 17, she worried she couldn’t raise a baby alone. Desperate to allay Fiona’s fears, Maggie ran through the house for a sign of Jesse’s devotion but didn’t find his parenting book or any evidence of the cradle. Instead, she grabbed dowels from Ira’s workbench and told Fiona they were spindles for the cradle that Jesse was building.

Fiona and Jesse shared his bedroom and lived with Maggie and Ira. Fiona stayed because she believed Jesse wanted to be a father and husband. Maggie was thrilled to have her grandchild so close and hovered over all three of them. Fiona and Jesse bickered because he was never helpful with the baby and wasn’t quiet about having wanted (and expected) a son. One day, the family was at the racetrack and Fiona asked Jesse about the cradle he never built. They argued in front of Maggie and Ira (and a bunch of eager eavesdroppers):

“You bought those long wooden rods.”
“Rods? For a cradle? I never bought any rods.”
“[Your] mother told me—”
“How would I use rods to build a cradle?”
“Spindles, she told me.”
They both looked at Maggie. Coincidentally, the baby paused just then for a deep, hiccuping breath. A bass voice rumbled over the loudspeaker, announcing that Misappropriation had been scratched.
Ira cleared his through and said, “Are you talking about doweling rods? Those were mine.”
“Ira, no,” Maggie wailed, because there was still a chance they could smooth things over, if only he wouldn’t insist on spelling out every boring little fact “They were the spindles for your cradle,” she told Jesse. (Loc 4199)

Then the explosion:

“I married you for that cradle,” Fiona told Jesse.
“Well, that’s plain ridiculous!” Maggie said. “For a cradle! I never heard such a—”
“Maggie, enough,” Ira said.
She stopped, with her mouth open.
“If you married Jesse for a cradle,” Ira told Fiona, “you were sadly mistaken.”
“Oh, Ira!” Maggie cried.
“Shut up, Maggie. She had no business telling you that,” Ira said to Fiona. “It’s Maggie’s weakness. She believes it’s all right to alter people’s lives. She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them.”
“That’s not one bit true,” Maggie said.
“But the fact is,” Ira told Fiona calmly, “Jesse is not capable of following through with anything, not even a simple cradle. He’s got some lack; I know he’s my son, but he’s got some lack, and you might as well face up to it. He’s not a persevering kind of person. He lost that job of his a month ago and he hangs out every day with his pals instead of looking for work.”
Maggie and Fiona, together, said, “What?”
“They found out he wasn’t a high-school graduate,” Ira told them. And then, as an afterthought: “He’s seeing another girl too.” (Loc 4213)

Ka-boom. Fiona bolted and ran back to her family.

Now, you might see this exchange as proof that Ira interferes as much as Maggie, but his style is opposite hers in every way. What he told Fiona was true. He confirmed all Fiona’s suspicions and feelings; the same feelings that Maggie always negated and smoothed away. Maggie was gaslighting her. It’s not clear to me whether Maggie honestly believed Jesse would ever be the kind of husband/father that Fiona and Leroy want/need or if her sole rationale was to keep Jesse and Leroy at home for her own validation.

And now (back to the present), Maggie is coaxing Fiona to have dinner with them and to see Jesse. (In the intervening years Jesse has shown zero-to-no interest in Leroy and his support checks are always late.) Why does Fiona go? She has a weak spot for Jesse and Maggie says that Jesse has a weak spot for her too. They were always on-again-off-again, working at cross-purposes, but they’re both older now. Maggie tells Fiona that Jesse saved her soap box after she left because the smell brought back the memory of her. She saw Jesse sniffing it and later found it

“in his treasure drawer among the things he never throws away—his old-time baseball cards and the clippings about his band. […] I believe he has kept that soap box to this day, Fiona, and you can’t tell me it’s because he feels sorry for you. He wants to remember you.” (Loc 3221)

Maggie prods harder:

“Cut through all this to-and-fro, these hurt feelings and these misunderstandings. Say, ‘I’m here because I’ve missed you. So there!”
“Well, maybe I should do that,” Fiona said slowly. (Loc 3243)

So, of course, inevitably, Fiona asks Jesse about her soap box as an ice-breaker. But he doesn’t remember it:

“You said I went around sniffing soap boxes, Ma?”
“You did!” Maggie said. Although she hated having to repeat it to his face. She had never meant to shame him. She turned to Ira (who was wearing exactly the shocked, reproachful expression she had expected) and said, “He kept it in his top drawer.”
“Your treasure drawer,” Fiona told Jesse.”Do you suppose I’d come all the way down here like any ordinary… groupie if your mother hadn’t told me that?” (Loc 4853)

And then, again, Ira intervenes (would that he’d done so sooner!) and tells Fiona that Jesse doesn’t sleep with her soap box under his pillow. He sleeps with a woman.

“Jesse sleeps with a woman?”
Maggie said, “You just had to spoil things, Ira, didn’t you.”
“No,” Ira told her, “it’s the simple truth that’s spoiled things, Maggie, and the truth is, Jesse’s involved with somebody else now.”
“But that woman’s no one important! I mean they’re not engaged or married or anything! She’s no one he really cares about!”
She looked to Jesse to back her up, but he was studiously examining the toe of his left boot. (Loc 4868)

Right. Maggie knew all along. She fed Fiona a “he’s still in love with you” story and convinced her to make herself vulnerable all the while knowing that Jesse was with someone else. Preeeettty sure that you can’t convince someone to go back to their two-timing ex by saying that the other woman isn’t important.

When will Maggie stop manipulating Fiona into humiliating and painful encounters just so she can see her grandchild? And, throughout the book, the big reason for Jesse’s screwed-up-ness is implied to be Maggie and her over-parenting. He’s a big man-child.

Run, Fiona, Run!

But Jesse leaves first and Maggie is standing by with weapons-grade delusion:

Maggie said, “He’ll be back.” She was speaking to Fiona, but when Fiona didn’t respond (her face was almost wooden; she was staring after Jesse), she told Leroy instead. “You saw how glad he was to see you, didn’t you?”
Leroy just gaped.
“He’s upset at what Ira said about him, is all,” Maggie told her. And then she said, “Ira, I will never forgive you for this.” (Loc 4882)

Should we feel sorry for Maggie?

So here she was alone. Well! She brushed a tear from her lashes. She was in trouble with everybody in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn’t seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the world were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines—something like a poorly printed newspaper ad—and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place. (Loc 4902)

She’s contrite! And self-aware!
Will it last?

“Here’s what we could do,” Maggie said. “Write and ask Fiona if she’s given any thought to Leroy’s education. Offer to enroll her down here in Baltimore and let Leroy live with us nine months of the year.”
“No,” Ira said.
“Or even twelve months, if it works out that way. You know how attached children get to their classmates and such. She might not want to leave.”
“Maggie, look at me.”
She faced him, hands on her hips.
“No,” he said. (Loc 5102)

Just stop, Maggie. Stop.

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