When a favourite disappoints

I haven’t written about her much on this blog, if at all, but one of my favourite modern novelists is Anne Tyler. I was first introduced to her when I was working as a children’s librarian during my university vacations. I was reading Larry’s Party by the wonderful and much missed Carol Shields (if you’ve not read her brilliant, insightful book on Jane Austen, you must) in the staffroom one rainy lunchtime when one of my colleagues noticed what I was reading and engaged me in a lively discussion about how wonderful Carol Shields was. Then she asked me whether I also liked Anne Tyler, as their style was very similar and she absolutely adored her. I said I had never even heard of Anne Tyler, and promptly went over to the T section of Fiction and checked out A Patchwork Planet and Ladder of Years. A few days later, I had finished them both, delighted at discovering such a brilliant novelist whose matter of fact style hid a profundity and a wisdom that blew me away. Anne Tyler understood people; normal people, with lives like mine. Small lives, with their small problems and small miracles, hidden frustrations and stifled longings. I felt like I had found someone who knew what went on inside my head, and could translate it with an understated beauty that I envied immensely. To be able to write like Anne Tyler! What a gift that would be.

For some reason, I haven’t read any more of Anne Tyler since those university days. I read masses all at once, and gorged myself a little too much, perhaps; the need to read her left me after a while, and I suppose I must have exhausted the library’s collection. In fact, I’d sort of forgotten about her and her effect on me until recently, when I was sorting my books after my latest move. During the shelf building and book culling process, I found a copy of Breathing Lessons that I’d bought cheaply in a charity shop on a V&A lunchbreak about three years ago. It won Tyler the Pulitzer Prize, which is quite the recommendation, and I had every intention to read it as soon as I bought it, but one book and then another and then another and so on managed to jump up and take priority, as books tend to, and it was only a few days ago, when I was looking for a book to read amongst my shelves and spotted this one looking out at me, that it felt time to revisit Anne.

Sadly, I wish I hadn’t have picked this up. I’m about a third of the way through and all I feel is disappointment. That euphoria I felt on first reading her as a 19 year old has completely gone; Breathing Lessons is a sad struggle to read. It’s about a middle aged couple, Maggie and Ira, going to the funeral of an old friend’s husband. In the process of travelling there, Tyler reveals, through their thoughts, conversations and experiences, their hopes, dreams and failures, drawing a portrait of the average American in the modern age. Both Maggie and Ira are perfectly ordinary; they live in suburban Baltimore, they’ve been married since their teens, they have two grown children and fairly menial jobs. They bicker constantly, but underneath these simmering everyday frustrations of forgotten promises and financial difficulties lies a deep affection that has bound them throughout the ups and downs of their long marriage. They are typical Tyler characters, holding up a mirror to the inner workings of many of her readers’ minds, I’m sure, but to me, they have simply not come alive off the page. I don’t care about them, and I’m bored stiff of their arguments and the banality of their lives. I wonder whether it’s a novel I have to be older to fully appreciate; many of the observations Tyler makes, while interesting and thought provoking, are just not hitting me with the power I think they would if I had experienced the life events Maggie and Ira have. However, this hasn’t prevented me from loving and understanding Tyler’s characters before. There does seem to be something genuinely missing in this novel; the sense of warmth and the easy engagement with the characters that I remember feeling so well when reading her other novels just isn’t here. As such, I have absolutely no desire to keep reading, and it’s such a disappointment.

Time to read is limited and precious to me nowadays; I don’t want to spend any of it slogging my way through something that isn’t calling to me at all. I’ve barely read at all over the past week because I haven’t felt remotely inspired to pick up Breathing Lessons. I hate abandoning books, but I see no point in pushing on with something that so obviously isn’t pressing any of my buttons, regardless of how much I’ve loved the author’s other works. So, it’s off to the charity shop with this one, and hopefully my next Anne Tyler, when I get around to it, will be infinitely better, and remind me of that early magic that sparked a wonderful reading adventure. For now, I’m going to retreat to safe ground. The new Persephone, Patience, has arrived, and I can’t wait to get started!

p.s. The winner of Guard Your Daughters is the 8th person who asked for it – miss Jenny! I’ll email you!

56 comments

  1. I’m curious. Have you revisited any of the Anne Tylers that moved you when you were young, and seen if they still have that effect or if they, too, leave you unmoved now? It would be interesting to know if what affected you then doesn’t work anymore, or if this particular Tyler, apparently one that you didn’t read years ago, was simply not one of her better ones and never would have affected you at all. I never have read her, and it would take a strong motive to persuade me now. Life Lessons is one of her most famous, so if that left you cold…well, that makes it hard to judge whether I’d enjoy her or not! As you say, there are piles of dazzlingly come-hither books in the world, which leaves little reason, based on this experience, to pick up a Tyler.

    1. No, Diana, I haven’t, and that would be a very interesting experiment! I’d love to revisit some of the ones I particularly loved – I think my sister has them so maybe I’ll find time this winter. I do think that just this one is a bit a dud – the writing style felt different to me, somehow – but also, maybe I have just become unused to her style of writing, having mainly read midcentury middlebrow literature for so long! However I wouldn’t write her off, Diana – I remember Ladder of Years being amazing, and I can’t believe I’d find nothing in it now. I hope not, anyway!

    1. I think and hope that Breathing Lessons just wasn’t right for me, Priscilla, because I definitely loved her others that I’ve read, and loved properly rather than just liked!

  2. I discovered Anne Tyler at around 14 and also read quite a few of her books in a short space of time and then picked up breathing lessons years later and had the same experience of just being completely uninspired by it, it’s still on my bookshelf waiting to be finished! I would recommend saint maybe if you’ve never read that – it was the first Anne Tyler I read and nothing else ever matched it.

  3. I agree with Gilly … SAINT MAYBE was my introduction to Anne Tyler also, and although it has been years since I read that one, I remember loving it. I had the same experience with BREATHING LESSONS – it wound up being a DNF for me. It’s so disappointing when this happens with a favorite author, isn’t it? With me, this happened with Lorrie Moore. I love everything she has written … except for A GATE AT THE STAIRS, which was just meh. Made me so sad.

    1. So glad you agree too, Melissa! It looks like Saint Maybe will definitely have to be my next Anne Tyler! I have heard Lorrie Moore is very good…she’s another author I clearly need to check out!

  4. It’s nice that others have enjoyed Anne Tyler. I have never really cared for any of her books. As you say, time is too precious to spend on books that don’t move you.

    1. I’m sad to hear that, Marilyn, but if an author isn’t for you, there’s not much you can do about it is there! I’m glad you tried her, anyway – she’s definitely worth a try!

  5. I think Breathing Lessons is the Tyler that won the Pulitzer and I know quite a few people who love Tyler who didn’t love that one. My favorites of hers are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe and there is one scene in The Accidental Tourist I could read over and over again. I also have a fondness for A Patchwork Planet and my favorite of her early works is A Slipping Down Life.

    1. That’s interesting and good to know, AJ – You’ve given me so many titles, thank you! Saint Maybe keeps coming up so I am going to try and track that one down.

  6. Je viens de découvrir cette auteur avec ce livre et j’adore. J’ai lu également “Une autre femme” et “Quand nous étions grands”. J’espère en lire d’autres.

    1. Je suis tres heureuse que vous avez adorer ‘Breathing Lessons’ – vous devriez essayer ‘A Patchwork Planet’ ou ‘Ladder of Years’ – ces livres sont tres bien et je me souviens les caracteres encore. Je suis desolee que mon francais!

      1. I have read “Ladder of years” which is translated in French “Une autre femme” and It was a pleasant reading for me. I have also read “Back When We Were Grownups” and I enjoyed it a lot. I hope reading “The Amateur Marriage “.

  7. I’m sorry to hear this didn’t work for you. It was my first Tyler that I read and it’s been so long now since I last read her. But I really liked Breathing Lessons, though not in the way that overwhelmed me. It was just a nice sort of book that, though very sad, imparted a few lines that really struck me (not sure now exactly where but I think nearing the end). Because of those passages I looked for other books by her. Read The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe and Ladder of Years, when it came out. Those were the only copies I found, but my favourite of the lot was Saint Maybe. I still would like to read her other books, especially the older ones that I couldn’t find before. I know I won’t be blown away but I also know she’ll have little snippets of wisdom to impart. I just hope I won’t be disappointed going back to her as you were..

    I do agree on not finishing when a book doesn’t feel right. Time’s too precious and there are so many other books waiting..

    1. Hi Claire, lovely to hear from you! Everyone seems to think Saint Maybe is fantastic, so I shall definitely try that next. Anne Tyler is definitely a gentle novelist – quietly profound rather than blow your socks off amazing. But that is the sort of author I prefer anyway. I hope you won’t be disappointed second time round.

      Absolutely! I used to never be able to do that but now I can happily abandon books – life is too short and I don’t want to waste time on anything I’m not enjoying and that is supposed to be pleasurable!

  8. Anne Tyler somehow is a novelist one enjoys, keeps meaning to read another but then other books creep up. She’s one of the authors both Warmth & I like so we ended up having duplicate copies when our bookshelves merged. Looking forward to reading Patience.
    Ps. Just one more week until half term well done on your first half.

    1. Yes, exactly…never quite a pressing need, is she? I love that you and Warmth both like her – I can imagine you all cosy reading her together! Patience is wonderful – I think you’ll love it!🙂 Oh I know, thank goodness – I can’t wait for a rest and I can’t BELIEVE I’ve done one whole half term already! Time flies!

  9. Please don’t throw Tyler out of the window on the basis of this novel. The Accidental Tourist is wonderful and I really liked The Amateur Marriage too. I think The Patchwork Planet remains my favourite. She’s obviously a patchy novelist but at her best superb so your 19 year old self was not wrong.

    1. I won’t Harriet, don’t worry! I loved A Patchwork Planet too. I need to read more – we did used to have The Accidental Tourist somewhere but I think it went in a book cull. I shall track down some more at the library and see how I get on!

  10. While I’m an Anne Tyler fan, there are a few I haven’t loved as much. Interestingly, I wasn’t keen on The Accidental Tourist, which I see other commenters really liked. But please don’t give up on her yet. When you’re ready, give her most recent book, The Beginner’s Goodbye, a try–it’s Anne Tyler at her absolute understated best.

    1. Hi Kristina – yes, she’s not consistently amazing, but that’s ok by me. I have loved some, liked others, and intensely disliked just the one, so on balance, she works for me! I hadn’t seen her latest so I will track that one down – thanks for the tip!

  11. It’s a while since I read this one (I’m an Anne Tyler (and a Carol Shields!) fan, too), but I don’t remember being disappointed by it. Maybe that’s because I’m a lot older than you and so it fitted in better with my age group. For me, it makes a lovely change to have older people as the protagonists. So often I’m the same age as the mother!

    I certainly agree with not finishing a book that you’re not enjoying. There are far too many wonderful books waiting to be read. Keep your precious time for ones you’ll enjoy!

    1. Ha! I love that you enjoyed this Penny. I’m glad someone did, and I’m thinking I’ll hang onto it and see how it takes me in a few years time.

      Exactly! That is precisely what I intend upon doing!

  12. Yes I understand the bookish dilemma. One feels obliged to consume all of it, but why? Is it like brussell sprouts when we hate them but they’re good for us – I like them now – or homework when we have no choice, or do we simply need to know “reader, I married him,” but when the lead up is so dull?

    My last two books have been like this. What seemed like an OK read found in an Andorran bar (don’t ask) turned out to be pulp lit with little interest. So I turned to an odd, quirky Rupert Thomson who I have (sort of) enjoyed before but this one is just waning on my bathroom floor unwanted, unloved, unfinished, unopened for days.

    But I’m hopeful, R, with a Kate Grenville with a wonderful opening and the promise of more to come. The Lieutenant. I enjoyed the Secret River. Do you know her?

    I’ve got a Tyler or two in my charity shop piles and a Shields also. I don’t think its really my thing.

    1. Hahaha – I know! The guilt is enormous but why? It’s an inanimate object for goodness’ sake!

      An Andorran bar, eh? What a place to find a book!

      I don’t know Kate Grenville at all! I shall look her up!

      I think Shields and Tyler are definitely a certain taste…they’re all about women of a certain age, as well…so I suppose that has something to do with it!

  13. I’m older – but I didn’t love it either! Is this the book with that very strange Ritz cracker/apple pie recipe … always meant to try it!

      1. My mom used to make that pie. I don’t recommend it. It was on the Ritz crackers box, if you must.

  14. I have read several Ann Tyler novels, I know she is a wonderful writer but I just miss the point, I absent mindedly left my copy of Breathing Lesson in the laundrette, I did not miss it, but and this is a big but, ‘An Amateur Marriage’ is brilliant, achingly sad and thought provoking, a recurring theme is AT novels is she seems to have one character who walks out on their life in the clothes they wear and nothing else and people with difficult marriages.

    1. I don’t think we can expect all of her novels to be equal…I always see An Amateur Marriage in charity shops so I shall pick it up next time. I agree – there does always seem to be someone who walks out in one way or another. I like that element of her novels very much!

  15. I’m sorry this one didn’t work for you, Rachel. It happens. Life is too precious and short and books are too numerous to waste on something you aren’t enjoying. It’s okay to just put it down and move on.

    If you should decide to try Anne Tyler in the future, The Accidental Tourist is the first of hers I read and I enjoyed it, along with St. Maybe. I didn’t read Back When We Were Grownups, but, did enjoy the made for tv movie based on it.

    I keep meaning to mention that I am really enjoying Bomb Girls, as are my friends who are watching it as well. I couldn’t remember if you had mentioned it, Rachel, AND I am truly enjoying The Midwives. Enjoy your weekend, Rachel.

    1. Thanks Penny – it’s good to know that other people are oK with leaving books behind sometimes!

      I think St Maybe is supposed to be excellent so I shall look out for that.

      I haven’t heard of Bomb Girls, Penny! Is it about the war? So glad you’re enjoying Call the Midwives – it’s so lovely isn’t it!

      1. Bomb Girls is a Canadian series that has made its way to us via cable. I’m not remembering who first mentioned it in a post but was excited when it started to air here. It is about the war; women from all sorts of backgrounds working in a munitions plant, making bombs for England, working under dangerous conditions. The cast is fabulous, mostly women, but a few men; the plant’s chauvinistic owner, the men working there resentful of the women, the handsome Italian immigrant who management is suspicious of, the rich girl whose parents think she is working there as a typist. It is definitely a period piece, Rachel, but has all the music and costuming and issues of the day.

  16. I’ve been a fan of Ann Tyler for many years – The Accidental Tourist, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Saint Maybe, Patchwork Planet, The Ladder of Years (inaugural book club selection sometime in the late 90’s) – but took a break from her novels for several years, I think after reading Breathing Lessons. When I returned to her work at a slightly later stage in life, it was in the audio format with Digging to America. I loved it, and Tyler has since become an ‘audio author’ – Back When We Were Grownups, The Amateur Marriage.

    Tyler is wonderful, but for me, her books have suited particular times, places, and moods more than others. Hopefully you will enjoy her books again sometime in the future.

    1. I think you are so right, JoAnn – it’s all about time and place with some books, isn’t it? I have loved some of the Anne Tyler books you mentioned, and I am keen to read more – it’s a shame that Breathing Lessons has disappointed me, but it hasn’t put me off trying more in future!

  17. A few years ago, I had a dreadful sinus infection and had to take an antibiotic that robbed me if my sense of smell and taste for several days. Nothing had any odor, nothing had any taste. I’d open the window for a gulp of fresh air and…nothing. A bite if cheese was the same as a bite of pork chop: nothing was differentiated, everything sort of blended in with everything else. This is perhaps aong way to go to explain how I feel about Tyler’s work–it just all runs together for me; I can’t differentiate one book from the next; there’s a dull sameness about them.

    1. That’s such a sad analogy, Deb! I’m sorry you feel that way about her books! I remember just loving them when I read some a few years ago but I wonder how I’d feel if I read them now. I have heard some people share a similar analogy about Anita Brookner, funnily enough!!

  18. I loved early Tyler and Dinner at The Homesickness Restaurant is one of my all time favourite reads. It is the same with Margaret Atwood. I loved her early works but cannot read her latest books. Do you think that authors only have a few good books to write and what about those that only write one good book.

    1. I haven’t read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – I’ve heard it’s brilliant so I must try my best to get hold of that soon! I’m sad you haven’t enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s latest books. I love them! I do think that prolific authors tend to have books that are less accomplished than others – even Jane Austen has a couple of duds in my opinion!!

  19. Aw shame you didn’t get on with Breathing Lessons which is one of my favourite Tyler novels although Maggie can be infuriating! I do wonder if, as Penny says, it is an age thing with some of her titles? I didn’t discover Tyler until my late thirties and probably wouldn’t have loved all her novels when I was younger. If a novel is not working for you I don’t believe in persevering – unless you have to teach it!

    1. I think it might be an age thing, Nicola – I just didn’t ‘get’ Maggie at all and maybe I will when I’m older. I’m not one for forcing myself to finish – I’d rather just come back later!

  20. It is always so disappointing when you’re let down by a favourite author. You have, however, still made me want to try some Anne Tyler (haven’t read any of her novels). I also hate giving up on books, but it’s true that life’s too short (especially on a GTP year!).

    1. I really love Anne Tyler’s other books that I’ve read, Miranda, and I’m sure you would too. This one just didn’t grab me, sadly. Try A Patchwork Planet, I remember that being amazing! Life IS too short at the moment – I have far too much work to do already and it’s only Monday!

  21. I’m not sure why it should be that hearing my favourite blogger hasn’t liked the same book as me makes me sad. It’s not that I doubt my own choices, just that agreeing about a novel is so thrilling.

    I have never been disappointed by Ann Tyler. She seems a deeply sensitive and wise person. I very much enjoyed Breathing Lessons. Maggie made me laugh – how real she seemed with her impatience and frustration. One for we older readers for sure. If we haven’t been there ourselves, we know someone who has!

    About Carol Shields, I’ve been reading The Stone Diaries, a well-deserved prize-winner, including the Pulitzer.

    Have we overwhelmed you with our recommendations?

  22. I hope you can find a more satisfying book to read soon, Rachel. It’s definitely no use sticking with something you just can’t find yourself able to enjoy.

    My high school English teacher was a big fan of Carol Shields. I hadn’t realized that she’d written a biography of Jane Austen, must get on that!

    Hope your week is going super well🙂

  23. I bought a two-volume collection of Anne Tyler at a used book sale recently, and mostly I have been disappointed. I really love her writing style, but the attitude of so many of her books seems so pessimistic. I think she doesn’t mean to be, but I find little hope for most of her characters – what she seems to offer doesn’t seem to be enough (and I don’t think life need be like that). I tend to have a melancholy streak anyway, and I don’t need anything to encourage that. Several of the books others liked are not in that collection (I did rather like Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant), but Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons are. I left off on both, halfway through, as I’d had enough. Maybe I will try Patchwork Planet or one of the others which bloggers above have recommended. (I’m 51, so I don’t think the trouble is age….)

  24. I love Anne Tyler too and I’m so relieved to hear you say that you are disappointed with Breathing Lessons. Since it won the Pulitzer, I thought for sure it would be her very best, but if it had been the first of her work that I read, I wouldn’t have continued. Recently I’ve enjoyed Searching for Caleb and Digging to China.

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