I have to open—to get it out there—by saying that the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons reminded me, perhaps a little too much, of my own mother. The main character, the character from whose perspective we experience most of the story—Maggie—is the worst kind of optimist. The kind of optimist who can bend and twist reality in her mind like the most talented balloon artist can make flowers, poodles, and pikachu out of deflated rubber pouches. What appeals to me about both my strong reaction to Maggie and the way that Tyler portrays her are the implications for my own writing, because, to be honest, I’ve had great difficulty writing about my mother.
One detail that worked to make Maggie such a delightful character is the fact that Maggie is not, for the most part, self-conscious, but that she is self-conscious enough for us to find her redeeming. The reader sees clearly Maggie’s distorted view of her twenty-something son and how she lies to the people around her to try to bring them together, which, however well-intentioned, is still a lie, a manipulation. She just can’t help herself and we love her for it, because she does it for love. We also admire the easy way she interacts with strangers, how she cares about people, like the old man she ran off the road or the older man who she pretends to be serious for at the nursing home where she works. That image of her flying down the hall in a cart full of dirty laundry laughing symbolizes the way she glides through life. In order to do this, she doesn’t always see things as they are. We notice her flaws, but we love her, because she will don a wig and lurk in alleys to see her estranged granddaughter and it was her dress-up idea that drew Ira’s agoraphobic sister out into public. How does Tyler accomplish this liking of a character who in real life I think would drive me batty?
She dwells mostly on showing without judgment, leaving the reader to conclude what to think of Maggie. She reveals few and only the most redeeming aspects of Maggie’s inner life. We never see her doubt or despair, for instance. She reveals so much through dialogue. Maggie is not “closed-in, isolated” like Ira who regrets his lack of a college education because he is clearly a reflective, intelligent man. Maggie did not want to go to college. Her optimism could easily be mistaken for imbecility if it weren’t for her quick wit as when she picks up on the subtlety of Ira’s singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and replies, “Perfectly sane people visit their grandchildren, Ira Moran” (13). Most importantly, Maggie doesn’t appear to even be aware that she might be different from other people, that her view of people and their relationship is greatly influenced by romantic optimism. She is; however, not without reflection on the world and her relationship to it, “Why did popular songs always focus on romantic love?…Then besides the songs their were the magazine stories and the novels and the movies, even the hair spray ads and the panty-hose ads. It struck Maggie as disproportionate. Misleading, in fact” (64). Maggie is capable of reflection, so we must ultimately conclude that her optimism is not an accident, but a choice about how to live her life. This is further emphasized by her criticism of Ira’s pragmatism. Tyler’s commentary free approach to Maggie is what makes her most powerful, the way she gives her body, and voice, and thoughts, but does not judge or comment, leaves her for us to look at and decide. I read in an interview with Tyler that if she actually knew someone like Maggie in her real life, she’d be completely frustrated by her. How interesting! No wonder she wrote her without comment. I think when I next sit down to write about my mother, I’ll have to try to do it something like this.