Review: Breathing Lessons

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 3

Many people say the most terrifying villain in Harry Potter isn’t the semi-immortal, power-hungry dark lord, but the pink-clad, doily-obsessed Professor Umbridge. She’s petty, meddlesome, and uses her power to harass, threaten, and bully the teachers and students at the school. She’s not an abstract embodiment of evil or power like Voldemort, she’s recognizable: We’ve all had a terrible teacher or boss who used their scrap of power to mock and demean the people beneath them. And so…

Even though she doesn’t kill anyone or seek world domination or do much of anything outside her familial sphere: Maggie Moran of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is my most-loathed fictional character. Are there more awful characters out there? Yep. But Maggie feels more like a person than most of them which means she provokes a stronger feeling of irritation. For the spoiler-y rationale: see page 2.

It’s hard to rate this book a 4.6. Someone might read this review and want to read the book. No one deserves to have Maggie inflicted upon them. She’s not a character whose scenes you can skip/skim then forget once you close the book. Reading Breathing Lessons is the same as being introduced to her. When you finish this book, you’ll know it’s not over. Somewhere out there, Maggie is finding new ways to needle poor Fiona and Jesse with her lies and manipulations. She can’t help herself.

Like all Tyler books, Breathing Lessons features a fully-realized (and dysfunctional) family living in Baltimore. Maggie and Ira have two children, one a lead-singer in a band who bounces between day jobs (Jesse), and the other a goody two-shoes leaving for college (Daisy). Maggie, faced with an empty nest, turns her attention to her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, and son, Jesse. If only there was a way for her to push them back together…

Maggie’s meddling seems harmless and well-intentioned at first, but it soon involves gigantic lies and fabrications. When Ira intervenes with the truth, Maggie turns on him for ruining things with “boring facts.” But, unlike Maggie, he isn’t willing to watch people make momentous decisions based on her half-truths. Her selfishness is startling at times and even cruel.

The writing is extraordinary. Even though Tyler’s prose is simple as ever, it conjures vivid imagery:

To find any place in Deer Lick, you just stopped at the one traffic light and looked in all four directions. Barbershop, two service stations, hardware, grocery, three churches—everything revealed itself at a glance. The buildings were set about as demurely as those in a model-railroad village. Trees were left standing and the sidewalks ended after three blocks. Peer down any cross street; you’d see greenery and cornfields and even, in one case, a fat brown horse dipping his nose in a pasture. (Loc 765)

The story begins with Maggie and Ira traveling to a funeral. There, the widow confides to Maggie:

“And then Linda’s kids started teasing the cat. They dressed the cat in their teddy bear’s pajamas and Linda didn’t even notice. She’s never kept them properly in line. Max and I used to bite our tongues not to point that out. Anytime they’d come we wouldn’t say a word but we’d give each other this look across the room: just trade a look, you know how you do? And all at once I had no one to trade looks with. It was the first time I’d understood that I’d truly lost him.” (Loc 909)

This is one of those tangible descriptions of grief that hits like a sucker punch.

It’s hard to talk about this book with my anti-spoilers posting philosophy, which is why my spoiler-filled rant was moved to page 2. It’s “safer” than posting spoilers after a break since you won’t see them unless you click the link. May this discovery of pagination herald a new dawn of tech-savvyness on this blog!

In short (and without spoilers), if you’re a fan of Anne Tyler, you’ll like Breathing Lessons. Her characters are as well-drawn as ever, but there’s more at stake than in her recent A Spool of Blue Thread. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant remains my favorite because its larger cast gives Tyler more to work with—she tackles romantic, parental, and sibling relationships across multiple generations. Here, Ira and Maggie are the stars and, to a lesser degree, Fiona and Jesse. As for the relationships between the parents and their son Jesse, more is implied than directly stated. I’d have liked to see more of his character and his interactions with Maggie, perhaps even a section from his perspective.

Overall: 4.6 out of 5  Technically, this score puts Breathing Lessons just above Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which I preferred. Though Breathing isn’t as far-reaching or as moving, it does have Maggie. She and Ira feel authentic. I can’t say that another character has been such an irritant to my imagination. There were several times when I threw down the book and shouted: “Who do you think you are, Maggie??!” Usually the only people with the ability to bother me this way are people. Actual people. Technically, this book functions at the highest level, but Dinner is the better reading experience.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

17 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  7. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  12. She by H. Rider Haggard
  13. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  14. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  15. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  16. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  17. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Review: A Spool of Blue Thread

a_spool_of_blue_thread_coverTL;DR: Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Inn is better. (Though A Spool of Blue Thread is still good, of course.)

I received this book for my birthday and cracked it open on its way to the bookcase and read:

Late one July evening in 1994, Red and Abby Whitshank had a phone call from their son Denny. They were getting ready for bed at the time. Abby was standing at the bureau in her slip, drawing hairpins one by one from her scatter sand-colored topknot. Red, a dark, gaunt man in striped pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt, had just sat down on the edge of the bed to take his socks off; so when the phone rang on the nightstand beside him, he was the one who answered. “Whitshank residence,” he said.
And then, “Well, hey there.”
Abby turned from the mirror, both arms still raised to her head.
“What’s that,” he said, without a question mark.
“Huh?” he said. “Oh, what the hell, Denny!”
Abby dropped her arms.
“Hello?” he said. “Wait. Hello? Hello?”
He was silent for a moment, and then he replaced the receiver.
“What?” Abby asked him.
“Says he’s gay.”
“Said he needed to tell me something: he’s gay.” (1)

…and couldn’t put it down.
I brought it to the couch instead and read it in one sitting—well, very nearly. What I most enjoyed about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is how it ushers the reader into a troubled, fascinating family and makes them feel welcome. With this opening scene, Tyler confirms that Dinner isn’t a one-off. Though Tyler takes a flak for most (all?) of her books having the same tone/temperament/components, I don’t mind the redundancy on account of how well she writes. Tyler writes simple, common scenes that feel intimately relatable even if they’re nothing like anything you’ve personally experienced.

I don’t think it’s wholly fair or relevant to dig up an author’s past works when talking about their latest. It’s just that there are so many similarities in style that I can’t help but think of Dinner. I may need to put more space between Tyler’s books to dissuade comparisons if I’m going to keep reading her. I do think I would have enjoyed Spool more if I was able to consider it solely on its own merits. The Tull family (in Dinner) has more going on; their dysfunction creates interest and suspense. Spool has small revelations about past family scandals, but they’re clarified and minimized until they’re pressed flat into the novel’s soothing tone.

Tyler’s writing is a dream for any lit student. I could have churned out a term paper in an afternoon if allowed to write about the Whitshank’s beautiful home as a metaphor for family and class. Look, Tyler draws introductory parallels herself:

For years they owned next to no furniture, having sunk every last penny into the down payment, but he refused to go out and buy just any old cheap stuff, no sir. “In this house, we insist on quality,” he said. It was downright comical, the number of his sentences that started off with “In this house.” In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even thought the Whitshanks could not possibly have started out Episcopalian. So “this house” really meant “this family,” it seemed. The two were one and the same. (49)

I’m not being remiss in omitting a blurb. There’s not a good way to summarize this book. I’ve been recommending it to friends as “a way to spend time with another of Tyler’s well-crafted families.” There’s not a central struggle to the novel—the reader learns about three generations of the Whitshank family and how they came to own and maintain their large, comfortable home. It’s about the small struggles of the day to day: home, work, and caring for family. Perhaps if there had been more of a central narrative, the end could have had a proper ending instead of trailing off.

Overall: 4.2. Stunningly well-written, but the lack of ending (when it seemed for a moment that there might be one) left me with an “is that all” feeling at the end. It conveys the “end of an era” sentiment that it’s striving for, but it’s too mild to feel satisfying.

Translation: Read this before Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It’s more fun to read an author from least to best so that each book is a better and more surprising experience without wondering why the author didn’t live up to their own hype.

Review: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

77699Two chapters in, I put seven copies* of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in my Amazon cart for Christmas and texted folks to say: I found your gift early! A few more chapters and I cleared my cart, sent a round of “Neverminds,” and poured a big ol’ drink. It’s not right to label this book “depressing,” but its engrossing depiction of unhappy people isn’t the cheeriest gift for a holiday that’s awash in familial weirdness. (You still need to read it, though!)

At the outset, Pearl Tull is dying and cared for by her son, Ezra (the “good” son). Her mind slips back and she remembers her life, her marriage, and her children. (Usually I skip “dying person thinks about life” books, but this was worth the exception.) The non-linear narrative follows the pattern of memory and builds a cohesive picture of Pearl across the opening chapter. Chapter Two picks up from the perspective of one of her children and we learn that Pearl is an unreliable narrator; she shapes events according to how she views herself, and the way she wants to be remembered. Each chapter follows a different member of the family. The truth is likely somewhere between Pearl’s version, and those of her children.

Most striking is how the main cast, Pearl and her three children (Cody, Ezra, and Jenny) feel so authentic. It’s not a matter of giving them the right amount of flaws, unique voices, or relatable moments—it’s Tyler’s ability to craft events from multiple viewpoints that adds nuance to each character and situation. The characters build imperceptibly until you notice that you’re thinking of them as people. The writing is gorgeous and there isn’t a lot of fluff as the story spans Pearl’s life, her children’s, and the early lives of her grandchildren.

So about that unhappiness:
The family’s dysfunction stems from multiple places. The lazy answer is to say things take a turn when Beck, the husband/father, walks out when the kids are young. Pearl attempts to shield them with a charade that their father is on another sales trip, but they wise up and Beck’s departure becomes an unspoken thing in the house. When Cody, the oldest son, looks around Pearl’s room as a child:

Even the bedside tables were completely bare; and in all the drawers in this room, he knew, every object would be aligned and squared precisely—the clothing organized by type and color, whites grading into pastels and then to darks; comb and brush parallel; gloves paired and folded like a row of clenched fists. Who wouldn’t leave such a place? He straightened, feeling panicky. (42)

There are multiple passages that follow this pattern: a) description, b) insinuation that of course whatever happened has happened. How could it be otherwise?

[Pearl] feels that everything has been assigned, has been preordained; everyone must play his role. Certainly she never intended to foster one of those good son/bad son arrangements, but what could you do when one son is consistently good and the other consistently bad? What can the sons do, even? (191)

Pearl’s rigidity leaves a volatile and unpleasant legacy, but so many of her sections break my heart. The passage below has been rattling around my head for the last month. She’s a hard and difficult person, but Tyler’s refusal to cast her as the villain makes her compelling.

Often, like a child peering over the fence at somebody else’s party, she gazes wistfully at other families and wonders what their secret is. They seem so close. Is it that they’re more religious? Or stricter, or more lenient? Could it be the fact that they participate in sports? Read books together? Have some common hobby? Recently, she overheard a neighbor woman discussing her plans for Independence Day: her family was having a picnic. Every member—child or grownup—was cooking his or her specialty. Those who were too little to cook were in charge of the paper plates.
Pearl felt such a wave of longing that her knees went weak. (191)

And the title?
Ezra runs a restaurant, the Homesick Restaurant, which sounds like a stellar place—the deepest mystery of this book is why his restaurant isn’t more successful, but then I read it over my evening commute when I was hungry. You should see what Tyler’s elegant prose can do with food! The family repeatedly attempts dinner together at this restaurant, but it never works out. It’s amazing how so much of this book has the “it was always coming to this” vibe without the overall narrative becoming predictable.

It was true that once—to celebrate Cody’s new business—they had made it all the way to dessert; so if they hadn’t ordered dessert you could say they’d completed the meal. But the fact was, they did order dessert, which was left to sag on the plates when their mother accused Cody of deliberately setting up shop as far from home as possible. There was a stiff-backed little quarrel. Conversation fell apart. Cody walked out. (159)

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5). I took off a pinch for the flat scene at the end (flatness is probably the point), but the ONE time I wanted Cody to vent his anger, he switched to peacemaker mode. This is likely due to “character development” and I’m probably a bad person for wanting to see him yell at the end, but come on, Cody!

Translation: Read it. I know it sounds like something you’d be assigned for English class, but it’s not as if teachers never luck out and assign something good. This is something you’d read for your favorite English class.

*It’s admittedly uncreative to give a group of friends all the same book, but A) few of them know each other, B) it’s damn difficult to find seven books a year that I LOVE, C) I’m not as creative as everyone seems to believe.