Review 1830: Breathing Lessons

Anne Tyler is concerned with the lives of ordinary people—in this case a middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira Moran. The novel explores a common confusion of middle age—how we got where we ended up in life.

After attending an unusual funeral, in which Maggie’s best friend Serena attempted to recreate her wedding day—Maggie talks Ira into detouring to visit their ex-daughter-in-law, Fiona, and their granddaughter, Leroy. The situation with these two is unfortunate, for the Morans have not seen their seven-year-old granddaughter since her third birthday. However, Maggie is convinced that son Jesse and Fiona still love each other, and all they need is a little nudge to get back together.

It is immediately apparent that Maggie is a somewhat scattered thinker, while Ira is more practical. It takes a while to learn, though, something that Ira understands—Maggie is so prone to look at the positives that she doesn’t see things as they are but as she wants them to be. Unfortunately, this includes getting carried away to the point of lying about things.

This wasn’t my favorite Anne Tyler book, but it depicts some characters who seem very true to life (but are also similar to the couple in The Amateur Marriage). Maggie is, I think, supposed to be lovable, but I sympathized with Ira and thought his patience was phenomenal. Jesse is a fairly typical boy-man, another one of Tyler’s types, lacking in responsibility but whose irresponsibility may have been encouraged by Ira’s lack of faith in him. Maggie fails to see that Fiona not only left Jesse, she left the whole family because of its dynamics.

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Review 1733: Redhead by the Side of the Road

Micah Mortimer grew up in chaotic conditions, so he structures his week carefully and keeps his basement apartment neat. He lives there rent-free in exchange for maintaining the building and has his own tech business.

He has been dating Cass for three years. When she is caught with a cat in her apartment, she worries that she’ll be evicted, but Micah does not understand her hints to invite her to live with him. The same day, Brink, the teenage son of his old girlfriend, comes by. His mother has never told him about his father, so Brink thinks he is Micah. Micah knows that isn’t possible, but he focuses on trying to get Brink to call his mother, who doesn’t know where he is.

Micah extends Brink an invitation to spend the night, but that backfires. For Cass interprets this invitation as a pre-emptive move to avoid having to invite her to move in, so she breaks up with him.

This novel is a touching character study about a man who is kind and thoughtful but needs to loosen up a bit and get a clue. I’ve recently rediscovered Anne Tyler and have been reading more of her.

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Review 1718: Literary Wives! The Amateur Marriage

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

It’s December 7, 1941. Michael Anton is working in the family store in an Eastern European Baltimore neighborhood when Pauline comes in with some neighborhood girls. It’s apparent to everyone that he’s a goner. Excitement is in the streets because of that day’s declaration of war against Japan, and in the impulse of Pauline’s excitement, Michael enlists.

Michael is injured during training, so he never goes to war but instead marries Pauline. Michael is steady, perhaps a little stolid. Pauline is emotional, reacting to every little thing and often over-reacting. The Amateur Marriage follows what is really an ill-assorted couple through their marriage—children, deaths, family crises—and beyond.

Tyler is excellent in her minute observations of everyday life. She sees the cracks in the American dream and reveals them with empathy. I enjoyed this novel, although at times Pauline drove me crazy.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife

At first, I thought Tyler was going to show how this admittedly mismatched couple could still make a lasting marriage, but that turned out not to be the case. The couple come together almost completely by chance, and later, when we learn about Pauline’s previous dating career and her career while Michael is in the service, we realize that if Michael had gone to war, Pauline would almost certainly have found someone else before he got back.

In the beginning of the relationship, the chemistry between them works pretty well, even though they obviously go into marriage with different expectations. Michael, for example, believes they will continue to live above the store, while Pauline assumes they will buy a house in the suburbs even though they can’t afford one. Michael at first seems relatively unambitious, while it is Pauline’s ideas that push him to do better than his parents’ store. The difficulties come when the chemistry starts to wear off.

This novel depicts a couple a little older than my parents although more conservative. In fact, in many ways they resemble my parents, some in temperament and others generationally. However, frankly Pauline is sometimes so volatile that I don’t know how anyone could live with her. It seems as though someone more expressive than Michael would make her feel more secure but would be even more likely to fight with her. And some of the things she says when she’s upset, which in later years seems like all the time, are really nasty.

Although Tyler isn’t explicit about this, I can’t help thinking that a lot of Pauline’s unhappiness comes from the sterile suburban life that my mother also lived, because the Antons do eventually move to the suburbs. Theirs is a typical 50’s marriage, with Michael away working a lot and not as involved with his children as he could be, with Pauline taking all the responsibility for the house and child care.

Pauline, a social girl, is isolated in the suburbs except for neighborhood parties and gossip by the pool or visits back to the old neighborhood (which, however, was not her old neighborhood, but Michael’s). However, she also cultivates a helplessness that I found shocking, when later in life she can’t light her own pilot light or shovel her own driveway.

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Michael is a little more of a mystery because we don’t hear from him as often. He makes the same kind of mistakes as my father did, for example, buying practical gifts instead of frivolous or romantic ones. They fight about money, but he has had a careful immigrant upbringing of scrimping and saving, while hers has been more privileged—and she does seem to do some reckless spending.

I also felt this novel showed how people tend to concentrate on the negatives of their relationship when they’re at odds. It is only when things are long over that both Michael and Pauline begin to remember some of the things that brought them together in the first place.

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Review 1490: A Patchwork Planet

Anne Tyler’s books have been around for years, and some of them have been very popular, but for some reason, I never read any until just a couple of years ago. Now, I have read a few and wonder what I was waiting for. Her Baltimore settings and her quirky characters make for an enjoyable time reading.

In A Patchwork Planet, Barnaby Gaitlin is on his way by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to see his daughter when he becomes fascinated by an incident. A man goes up and down the platform looking for someone who is going to Philadelphia, but he does not ask scruffy-looking Barnaby. He finally finds a middle-aged woman who agrees to take a package containing her passport to the man’s daughter in the Philadelphia station.

This event awakens in Barnaby both curiosity and a sort of protectiveness toward the woman. He watches her during the trip to see if she opens up the package to make sure it is a passport and not something more sinister or dangerous. She does not. He follows her to see her hand it over.

Barnaby is on the surface a tough, lower-class guy, but we find as we get to know him that he is still rebelling, at 30, against his wealthy, status-conscious parents. He is not ambitious, but he is kind-hearted and loves his job for Rent-a-Back, where he does chores and runs errands for mostly elderly clients. But he is a disappointment to his parents, especially to his mother, who can’t forgive him for incidents in his juvenile delinquent past. This past involved breaking into houses and stealing, but while his friends took liquor and money, Barnaby looked at family albums and stole curios. Unfortunately, he was the only one caught.

Barnaby takes another train trip with the woman, Sophia, and engages her in conversation, during which his friendliness wins her over. She contacts Rent-a-Back to have him help out her aunt. Soon, they begin dating.

Under Sophia’s influence, Barnaby begins to make strides toward growing up: to be more reliable at work, to make sure his daughter gets attention, to pay back his parents. But a crisis comes when Sophia’s aunt accuses him of stealing her nest egg.

A Patchwork Planet isn’t one of Tyler’s better known books, but I really enjoyed it, principally because of Barnaby’s engaging personality. This book is lots of fun.

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Day 921: Vinegar Girl

Cover for Vinegar GirlWhen I realized that Vinegar Girl is a reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, my main reaction was to wonder how that could be pulled off in modern times. But, I have thought I should read more Anne Tyler, so I decided to read it. It is very short and perhaps predictable, a quick, light read.

Kate Battista feels she doesn’t have much purpose in life. She and her sister Bunny have been raised by a preoccupied scientist father who has loads of ridiculous systems for running the house (even worse than my husband’s). The girls’ mother died young, but before that she was almost always caught up in depression. Kate was expelled from college for being rude to one of her professors (which actually sounds like an unlikely reason for being expelled). Since then, she has been working as a preschool teacher, taking care of the house and garden, and being a guardian to her sister.

Kate is abrasive sometimes, and she keeps getting into trouble at the preschool for things she says to the parents. She thinks her beautiful young sister is silly for putting on a different personality for men. She has lost most of her friends through lack of shared interests, and the only thing she does that she likes is gardening.

She is taken aback when her father calls her asking her to bring him his lunch, which he has forgotten. Since he frequently forgets his lunch and never notices, that is surprising, but she doesn’t figure out that he is attempting to introduce her to his lab assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov. Ultimately, it comes out that Pyotr’s visa is about to expire, and her father wants her to marry Pyotr so that he can stay in the country.

Kate is insulted and infuriated at the same time. She is so angry that she ends up agreeing, just to get out of the house.

link to NetgalleyYou can see where this is going. The novel is a cute romance with some good dialogue. I found a little unlikely the climactic scene Kate makes at the wedding dinner, especially considering what had just gone on before. The thrust of her message is that it’s harder being a man than a woman, something my mother used to tell me that I have never bought. I think Tyler is showing her age here, but it’s the only disappointing thing in a book that is fairly entertaining.

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Day 879: A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover for A Spool of Blue ThreadBest Book of the Week!
I haven’t read much Anne Tyler lately, but having just finished A Spool of Blue Thread, I think I should read more. This is one of those novels that seems to have more layers, the more you think about it.

Red and Abby Whitshank live in a lovely house in a Baltimore suburb that Red’s father Junior built for a client years ago. The house was Junior’s pride and joy, and he was constantly adding to it and refining it. Red, also a builder, has kept it in tip-tip condition. But now Red and Abby are in their 70’s. Red has recently had a heart attack, and the family gathers to decide what to do after Abby begins having gaps in her memory.

The family can sometimes be contentious, and their most troublesome member is Denny. Abby has always had a habit of inviting in strays, what her family calls her “orphans,” in an attempt to re-create the welcoming atmosphere in the house when she visited as a girl. The children have always resented these extra presences. But when Denny was four, Abby took this habit to extremes by insisting on taking in the orphaned son of one of Red’s workmen, a two-year-old boy named Stem. Denny is clearly jealous of Stem, and so is moody and unpredictable. He travels around from job to job and doesn’t tell the family about his life. He is undependable, leaving at the drop of a hat, and then can’t understand why no one asks for his help.

By the time Denny arrives, expecting to move in to help Red and Abby, Stem and his family have already rented out their house and moved in. Although there is some comic tension about who is helping whom, the family is all together again with the girls visiting frequently, and they enjoy telling their family stories.

After a tragic event, the novel moves back in time to the day when young Abby fell in love with Red. This has always been one of Abby’s favorite stories, but now we see a different side to it and to her.

Then the novel moves back farther in time to examine the relationship of Junior and his wife Linnie. At first, we’re shocked by some of its revelations, but we learn that human relationships are deep and complex.

This is a lovely novel about family stories and secrets, about how different people’s realities differ, about love and forgiveness.

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