July 8, 2009

Can't argue with the Pulitzer

Tyler, Anne. Breathing Lessons. New York: Berkley Books, 1998.

It's not exactly the kind of book I picture winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (those should be more ponderous), but it did, and I can definitely see the appeal of Breathing Lessons. The book takes one day in the life of a really ordinary-seeming middle-aged couple, fleshed out with generous flashbacks and a cast of supporting characters, and creates a honest and funny picture of how life really is. They're both annoyed at each other for most of the time--pretty much what you'd expect for people who've lived together for 30 years. Nonetheless, there's real love and comfort underneath the frustration. Even though they do some wacky things (playing solitaire at a funeral and tricking an old man who annoyed them in traffic into thinking his wheel is falling off are just two), the story ends with a feeling of nostalgia and hope. I guess life doesn't end when your nest is empty.

I love the style, light and folksy as the story is told from both Maggie's and Ira's perspectives. Tyler uses some of the best parenthetical statements I've seen. It's like the real story that the characters are muttering under their breaths while the narrator tries to make things smooth. "(Don't try and tell her he didn't care about his grandchild!)" The parts that aren't dialogue or inner thoughts are vividly descriptive, full of just the right adjectives and fun words like (twice!) "squinched." It's an easy read (probably three hours total), but not one that makes you feel stupider at the end.

I don't want to be guilty of grade inflation by giving out too many four-star ratings, so I was trying to think of why I would take off half a star. I couldn't find a good reason, and if it can win the Pulitzer I don't think I'm being too generous. The story's no earth-shaker. Yeah, life gets boring, and people frustrate you a lot, and you love your family (and of course your spouse) both despite and because of it all. But this book is just so darn up-front about everything, showing that it's safe to feel this way, that the familiarity is pretty swell. I'm looking forward to reading it again when I'm around the age of the main couple, preferably on a car trip while bickering with my husband.

Rating: ****

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