CRITICS often refer to Ann Tyler as a "domestic" novelist. Her novels generally deal with families, with relationships and with the middle class. But to call Tyler "domestic" is to make her work seem somehow less substantial, less complete. When John Updike writes about what suburban families say to each other, how modern men and women deal with everything from raising children to buying living room furniture, from adultery to taking out the garbage, we do not think that he is merely concerned with chronicling domestic life.
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Perhaps Updike attracts more serious appelations because his tone is often so harsh, his attitude so scornful of those he writes about. But Tyler's unrelenting compassion for her characters is intense but not maudlin. We should not mistake her sweetness for light.
And neither should we think that Tyler's vision is limited simply because her novels' settings often are. Her aim is not to depict perfectly the manners of middle class marriage. Instead, Tyler is trying to make sense of love--how the hope of love can transform a life and the lack of it can ruin one. And she treats the topic seriously, realizing that we concern ourselves too much with it, that we cannot live without it and that for some it can be the focus of a lifetime. Maggie Moran in Breathing Lessons is one of those people for whom love is everything. Maggie and Ira have been married for 25 years when they travel across Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of Maggie's best friend's husband. The novel alternates between Ira's and Maggie's points of view and is told mostly in flashbacks.
But while Tyler is not a stylistic innovator, she has an eye for rupture, for the moment where life becomes a little strange, a little alien. At one point in the journey to the funeral, Maggie and Ira argue and he literally leaves her behind at a truck stop. At that moment, Maggie sees the possibilty for flight, for change. She imagines starting over again, reinventing her life. When Ira comes back to her it's both a relief and a disappointment. Maggie goes on as usual, having confronted the possibility of a truly independent life.
THE journey reveals the failure of Maggie's dreams. It's mild failure, a dimming of hope and not a crushing defeat. But the bickering in her marriage and her husband's condescension have worn her down. Ira treats Maggie in a dismissive, if occasionally affectionate way. He sees her as flighty. Eventually Maggie can't help but doubt herself and to hope for vicarious happiness to escape a life that isn't what she hoped it would be.
And so she projects her dreams onto her son Jesse, a rock and roll singer who has failed at everything. Jesse's marriage to one of his groupies, Fiona, ended in divorce. But they had a daughter, named Leroy. During the time when Jesse's family were part of Maggie's life, they were everything to her. And when Fiona and Leroy fled, seven years before the novel opens, Maggie was left with an abandonment she cannot forget and a rift she is determined to mend.
The central conflict in the novel is between Maggie's efforts to force her version of happiness on her family and their resistance to her interfering. Maggie fools Jesse and Fiona into meeting again. As usual, Maggie paints things as she would like them to be rather than as they are. She expects others to accept her fantasy. Tyler continually impresses on us that Maggie's gratification lies in the possibility of re-uniting Jesse and Fiona, somehow giving them what she feels that they, and indirectly Maggie herself, deserve.
The love Maggie pretends exists between Jesse and Fiona reflects the hopes she had for her marriage to Ira. Maggie is caught between what she knows about herself and what her husband tells her she is. For Tyler, love is seeing yourself in your lover's eyes and assessing that version against the person you would like to be. The problem is that we invariably erect barriers to prevent ourselves from truly communicating and from being vulnerable.
IRA has depicted Maggie to herself as meddlesome and irresponsible. In doing so, he reinforces her worst attributes. Maggie's admiration of Ira, as well as her fear of his disapproval, also transforms Ira. By characterizing him as the strong one, Maggie not only makes herself weak but also insures that he will cultivate the infallibility she ascribes to him. After a quarter-century of marriage these two people become trapped in the selves they have generated for the other. And these representations, however appealing they may once have been, become inflexible, claustrophobic.
"She had so much to offer, if only someone would take it," Tyler writes, and Maggie is not shy about offering. Powerless in her own marriage, she attempts to control her son. Jesse responds to his mother's effusiveness with a combination of scorn and need, alternately damning her and making demands on her. Maggie's determination to help Jesse find happiness makes him incapable of finding it on his own.
Maggie, finally, lacks perspective on her own life. Though she feels that Ira attacks her, needles her, she nonetheless believes she has a marriage that is the envy of those around her. When she discovers it is not, she is dismayed. In the end her dreams have vanished, though she never noticed they were slipping away.
Although love is mostly a failure in the lives of the Moran family, Tyler's consistent empathy for her characters is a persuasive note of hope. We try, she seems to be saying, and though we may not always be able to do what we know is right, or overcome our pride, hope remains. If not for love, at least for understanding.