Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Baltimore residents Maggie and Ira Moran are preparing to attend the funeral of Max Gill, husband of Maggie’s school friend, Serena, in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Before the interstate drive can begin, Maggie, a nursing home aide who had turned down an opportunity to attend college, must retrieve the family car from the body shop. Deeply distracted by a caller on a radio talk show (whom she believes to be Fiona, former wife of her son Jesse) who is discussing her upcoming remarriage, Maggie smashes the left front fender of the newly repaired car as she departs from the garage. This unfortunate encounter with a Pepsi delivery truck foreshadows the randomness and impulse that characterize the rest of the day for the Morans.
Obsessed with the notion that Jesse and Fiona belong together and will reconcile given the right circumstances and encouragement, Maggie suggests to Ira that they drive to Cartwheel, Pennsylvania, after the funeral to pay a visit to their former daughter-in-law, who lives in this small town with her mother and her daughter, Leroy. Ira, who is a reticent and cynical counterpoint to Maggie’s loquaciousness and unflinching optimism, is not at all in favor of adding this extra leg to the trip. His immediate concern as the drive begins is ascertaining the correct route to Deer Lick; a stop for directions at a diner provides Maggie with an opportunity to share her family foibles with the waitress behind the counter, yet another action upon which Ira frowns.
Max Gill’s funeral turns out to be part high school reunion and part oldies revival concert. Maggie and Serena connect with several former schoolmates, and the program for the service features performances of several popular songs from 1956 that were sung at Max and Serena’s wedding. Serena asks Maggie and Ira to reprise their duet of the tune “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”; Maggie is willing to do this, but Ira refuses. A former male classmate of Maggie is asked to sing Ira’s part. Despite being polar opposites in personality, sparks remain in the Moran marriage. Maggie and Ira become amorous in Serena’s bedroom during the gathering after the service, in Serena’s house; she catches them and asks them to leave.
On the road once again, Maggie pleads her case to make the trip to Cartwheel to see Fiona. Ira argues that whether or not Fiona is indeed remarrying, the notion of her getting...
(The entire section is 981 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
If Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Morgan’s Passing are Tyler’s darkest works, Breathing Lessons is one of her most optimistic. Even though many of the misadventures in all of her novels are comic, in those earlier works one cannot escape the suggestion that life consists mostly of missed opportunities. In Breathing Lessons, on the other hand, one feels that nothing is lost, that everything can be renewed, repaired, or redeemed.
The renewal that is central in Breathing Lessons is the twenty-eight-year marriage between Maggie and Ira Moran. At first glance, Maggie and Ira would seem completely unsuited to each other. Ira is rational and precise. His heroine is advice columnist Ann Landers, who personifies common sense. Maggie, on the other hand, has contempt for logic. Compassionate, ebullient, and friendly as a puppy, she moves through life as if it were a festival. In fact, that is one of the things that so annoys Ira. She does not take life seriously, he thinks; she acts as if it were all a practice for something else.
The action of Breathing Lessons takes place in a single day, during which Maggie, impulsive as usual, insists on going to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, in order to attend the funeral of her girlhood friend’s husband. Throughout that day, Maggie and Ira squabble, revealing their irreconcilable differences, draw apart, then forgive each other, remember how charming...
(The entire section is 510 words.)