Sue Norton

Sue Norton is pleased to have her article about Anne Tyler’s 1988 novel Breathing Lessons appear in Loch Raven Review because readers of a Maryland based literary magazine will find much to appreciate about the Baltimore-set novel if they have never read it, and maybe new observations to make about it if they have.  Like so much of Tyler’s fiction, Breathing Lessons offers compassionate understandings of American family life and probes the myths that limit it. 

The Cradle Won’t Rock:

Anne Tyler’s Critique of Family Values in Breathing Lessons

         One of the most satisfying and long-term marriages in Anne Tyler’s fiction is enjoyed by secondary character Serena Gill, Maggie Moran’s aptly named best friend in Breathing Lessons, published in 1988.  When Maggie, who believes in the concept of a “one-true-love,” asks Serena on her wedding day how she can be sure she’s marrying the “right” man, Serena replies, “I’m so tired of dating!  I’m so tired of keeping up a good front!  I want to sit on the couch with a regular, normal husband and watch TV for a thousand years.  It’s going to be like getting out of a girdle; that’s exactly how I picture it. “ As the narrative unfolds, Tyler bestows Serena and her husband Max with decades of marital harmony.

           What saves Serena and Max from the many years of recurring disappointments endured by Maggie and her husband Ira is Serena’s refusal to idealise the marriage bond or motherhood, the latter of which she describes as “much too hard and, when you got right down to it, perhaps not worth the effort.”  The offspring of an adulterous affair, Serena perceived early on the shallowness of romantic clichés pertaining to love, marriage, and parenthood.  So when she incorporates the most sentimentally nostalgic pop-songs of the 1950s into Max’s funeral, songs that had been sung at their wedding, they seem oddly appropriate:  the love of Serena and Max had indeed been, for nearly thirty years, a “Many Splendored Thing.”  Serena had harboured no illusions in entering the marriage contract, and her relationship with Max had had the solidity of a lifelong friendship.  As Maggie remembers:

They’d often called each other by their last names — Max using Serena’s    maiden     name even after they were married.  “Watch it there, Palermo.”  Maggie could hear him now.  It had made the two of them look more amiable than other married couples.  They’d seemed like easy going buddies, unaware of that dark, helpless, angry, confined feeling that Maggie’s own marriage descended to from time to time.

            Maggie, however, labours under countless fairy-tale assumptions about love and marriage as she struggles mightily to reconcile her son Jesse with his ex-wife Fiona and their daughter Leroy.  The myth of the naturally occurring nuclear family holds Maggie under its spell, even as her mind refuses to accept its own contrary knowledge.  It was Maggie herself, for instance, who had coached Fiona in her breathing exercises during her final months of pregnancy.  In fact she had impressed upon Fiona how lucky she was that childbirth classes and breathing lessons exist at all:  Maggie’s generation had needed to figure out such ‘natural’ human practices as childbirth and parenting for themselves.  When Fiona complains, “Don’t they reckon I must know how to breathe by now?”, Maggie responds:

Oh, honey, you’re just lucky they offer such things….  My first pregnancy, there wasn’t a course to be found, and I was scared to death.  I’d have loved to take lessons!  And afterward:  I remember leaving the hospital with Jesse and thinking, `Wait.  Are they going to let me just walk off with him?  I don’t know beans about babies!  I don’t have a license to do this.  Ira and I are just amateurs.’  I mean you’re given all these lessons for the unimportant things — piano-playing, typing.  …  But how about parenthood?  Or marriage, either, come to think of it.  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.”

        Such a passage brings Tyler’s critique of conventional twentieth-century conceptions of family into sharp focus.  Clearly, in her dispensation, to play our supposedly natural roles requires effort and acquired skill.  Even breathing warrants practice.  And though Maggie can readily acknowledge this, her mind rejects the unpleasant truth:  Jesse is glaringly unsuitable for the seemingly natural, certainly conventional roles of husband and father.  In Maggie, though, Tyler constructs a character so susceptible to her own and society’s mythologizing tendencies that, at times, she cannot tell fact from her own fabrications.

            In much the same way, for instance, that Tyler uses the family meal as a trope for conveying the failed expectations of family togetherness in her earlier novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the baby cradle is her motif of choice in Breathing Lessons.  In order to tempt Fiona into what she sees as the proper family circle, Maggie spins a tale about Jesse’s resolve to make a cradle for the as yet unborn Leroy.  Though early on in Fiona’s pregnancy when he was still enamoured of the idea of fatherhood, he had indeed made mention of his intention to build a cradle, it quickly became yet another project left incomplete.  Maggie, however, constructs an entire fictional narrative, which she herself comes to believe, surrounding Jesse’s meticulously envisioned cradle.  To lure Fiona away from the front door of the abortion clinic, she tells her the cradle Jesse is building is “a beautiful one, with a hood.”  Once Maggie has safely deposited Fiona on the front porch of the house, she goes in search of the cradle’s “blueprints,” all the while encouraging a lethargic Jesse to hurry out of bed and come downstairs.  Eight months into her pregnancy, Fiona is still expecting Jesse to produce the cradle.  By the time their daughter Leroy has crawled out of the bureau drawer she’s been sleeping in, Fiona is pestering Jesse with, “I set my heart on a cradle.  You promised,” and he, quite accurately, can’t “remember promising.”  Ira, much more of a realist, comes home the next day with a crib.  As he assembles it, Fiona watches from the doorway.  “The skin beneath her eyes had a sallow, soiled look”.  On the day Fiona leaves Jesse for good, the mythical baby cradle ironically provides her with her parting words — “I married you for that cradle” — and the already strained family get-together, at which the entire Moran clan is assembled, comes to an embarrassing halt.  Having long been entranced by her own fairy-tale creation of the cradle, Maggie is left stupefied as Ira tries to explain to Fiona that Maggie has a weakness:  “She thinks the people she loves are better than they are, and so she then starts changing things around to suit her view of them.”

            Thus the symbolic cradle is left as empty as it began.  Its trajectory over the course of the novel’s plot implicitly calls to mind events in the well-known lullaby:

                        Rockaby baby on the tree top.

                        When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.

                        When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

                        and down will come baby, cradle, and all.

In keeping with its origins of optimistic beginning and ruinous ending in the lullaby, the cradle of Breathing Lessons serves the novel well as a repository for the doomed mythologised longings of at least three central characters.  At various times, Maggie, Fiona, and even Jesse had invested their hopes for a “traditional family unit” in this one unifying image.  Yet by it, Tyler deconstructs highly clichéd notions.  Ironically, Ian Bedloe of her later novel Saint Maybe, whose family of creation is, significantly, anything but conventional or cliché, will manage to build a finely crafted cradle for his new-born son without the slightest degree of procrastination.  Ian, by contrast to Maggie, adapts to a piecemeal family life.  Maggie does not adapt, but clings to a particular ideal and is often dismayed.

            Others in the novel are also susceptible to predetermined romantic fictions and societally governed prescriptions for family living.  Even an ostensibly cynical Ira unwittingly reveals a yearning for the Home-Sweet-Home sentimentality of Maggie.  Though Ira often points out the “fraying fibres of truth” that she wants to weave into “new tapestries,” his frequent whistling of nostalgic tunes lays bare his own deep desires.

            It is this tension between what Tyler’s characters know to be true and what they wish to be true that so often drives the plots of her fictions.  Her resolutions frequently amount to little more than tiny awakenings, but they are awakenings nonetheless.  Her characters, akin to sleeping beauties, are roused not by princely kisses, but, quite contrarily, by the slow growing awareness of deeper self-knowledge.  In the end, even Maggie comes to appreciate the essential loyalty of her relationship not only with her husband, but with her best friend Serena.  Though Breathing Lessons offers no radical reinvention of family, it does deconstruct its own myths and clichés to gesture toward broader understandings.  In the final scene, Maggie lies in bed beside Ira, accepting of Jesse and Fiona’s separation, accepting of her own marriage’s shortcomings, and feels for him a surge of affection as they look to a new day.

©Sue Norton

Sue Norton is a lecturer of English in the Dublin Institute of Technology.  She writes essays, reviews, and literary criticism for wide readerships. Her publications can be found here .

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