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!