Review: The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler

Last year, I read Vinegar Girl and moderately enjoyed it.  The issue – I felt – was that it was a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew which is not the most likable of Shakespeare’s plays and that story’s flaws bled through into Tyler’s novel.  Still, having always heard that Anne Tyler was gifted in chronicling domestic American life, I decided to give her another go on her own ‘turf’ and so picked up The Amateur Marriage at the library.  Published in 2004, it tells the story of Michael and Pauline, two people who meet in 1941 on the day that America joins the war.  They marry in haste during the drama of World War Two.  Spanning sixty years, we observe their ill-matched union as they stumble and get up again, two fallible human beings trying and often failing to be kind to each other.  

Michael Anton works in his mother’s grocery store and Pauline Barclay is not even from the neighbourhood – living a twenty minute walk away, she might as well be from another planet.  On the day they meet, Michael is stacking shelves and Pauline has been so excited by the declaration of war that she jumped off a street-car and cut her head, thus being rushed into the store by her friends in search of medical attention.  Michael applies the bandage and is instantly smitten.  It is clear that his subsequent decision to enlist in the army is drawn far more from a desire to impress Pauline than from any particular patriotic fervour.  Wounded by a fellow-recruit during training, Michael is invalided home and proposes to Pauline when she meets him at the station.

Spanning decades of the characters’ lives, the novel feels less like a linear piece and more like a collection of short stories, albeit featuring the same characters.  With chapter titles like ‘Dandelion Clock’, ‘Killing the Frog by Degrees’ and ‘The World Won’t End’, we watch the battle between Pauline’s passionate nature and impulsiveness and Michael’s natural taciturnity and stubbornness.  At their wedding, Pauline has last-minute jitters because she thinks that all they do is fight.  During the second chapter, we flit on a few years to where Pauline is pregnant with the couple’s second child and furious that her husband has bought her a kettle for her twenty-third birthday.  Michael watches her and wonders if it is possible to ‘dislike your own wife’.  As Pauline attempts to say sorry, he responds coldly that he should never have married her.  The two of them are tearfully reconciled at the end of the chapter but somehow we know from early on that they will not always have the energy to keep this up.

Tyler captures the death by a thousand paper cuts that is their marriage – Pauline tells Michael excitedly that her father will be able to find them a house for after they are married and Michael tells her gently that they cannot afford it, so they will be living in the apartment above the shop, with his mother.  Between ‘Mother Anton’ and the babies that come so quickly, we can see how they both come to feel so easily suffocated.  Their children, Lindy, George and Karen, get older, the family manages to move out to the suburbs, Pauline flirts with a neighbour, Mother Anton gets older and dies, the children get older still, Lindy rebels.  Then one day, Lindy walks out the door with a bag and doesn’t come back.

Tyler captures the jarring perspectives of Michael and Pauline with great sensitivity.  We catch how much is going on beneath the surface with Michael, of how he mulls over what really happened while he was undergoing military training, his hindsight over what drew him to Pauline and what now he finds so hard to live with.  By contrast, Pauline’s nature is open to the world, talking, sharing, demanding a reaction and a response.  How can Michael give Pauline what she needs?  How can Pauline be the partner who Michael wants?  The agony of these two people who want to love each other, do love each other but then struggle to actually contend with living wih each other – Tyler has captured a commonplace domestic tragedy.  Michael thinks back to when he met Pauline, of how he had felt like a beginner in marriage, but that by contrast all the other couples he knew seemed so assured – were he and Pauline the only amateurs left?

Time flashes forward between each of the episodes, so that I felt startled at the start of each chapter at what had befallen the family in my absence.  Pauline and Michael’s grandson goes from teenager to married father in moments.  On the day they met, Pauline and Michael watched an enlistment parade where one banner reads ‘Watch out Japs! Here comes the Szapps!’ – all six of the Szapp boys have joined up.  In the novel’s final pages, Michael reflects on his life and all that he has lost and notes that the ‘last’ of the Szapps had just died of a stroke.  The theme of the novel seems to be how life is what happens when you aren’t looking – when Lindy finally reappears after nearly three decades of absence, she is astounded by all that has happened while she was away.  We are none of us just one thing, we are constantly evolving – we can’t expect those around us to stay the same.

I finished the novel feeling like Pauline and Michael were a pair of family friends, the dynamics of whom I could comfortably analyse at length.  Pauline was not easy to live with, but she did have a loving heart.  I was caught by her admission to herself that her frustrating life with Michael had made her into a scratchier person than she wanted to be.  I was reminded of how I felt about myself when I was teaching – I had colleagues who consistently lied to me or fed me contradictory and misleading information and I felt a solid five to ten years older than I do now.  The situation was deeply frustrating and it made me someone who I did not want to be.  With a more supportive husband, Pauline would have found contentment easier.  There is something so jarring about Michael’s words to her on their thirtieth wedding anniversary – I was not expecting it and in that moment he felt cruel.

I read a quote from Anne Tyler about this book, stating that it grew out of the notion that out of all the opportunities to show differences in character, an unhappy marriage was the richest.  Neither Pauline nor Michael are inherently wicked and Tyler is able to make the reader believe that they do sincerely love each other.  Still, the construct of their marriage is greater than the simple sum of its parts – it has meaning within their community and to their children and grandchildren.  The Amateur Marriage weaves together a family saga with great depth, a real achievement in a comparatively short novel.  The ripples of Pauline and Michael’s ill-matched partnership ripple down the generations.  Having outlived Pauline, Michael listens in irritation as the children share ‘Pauline stories’, looks at the great-granddaughter who is named for her and reflects that no child will be named for him.  In this era where divorce is so socially acceptable and readily available, stories like that of Michael and Pauline perhaps no longer occur.  Perhaps Pauline really would have fled the ceremony.  Perhaps Michael would have walked out aged twenty-three.  Perhaps they would have both had happier lives.  I suppose I think here of my own parents who had a short marriage and who have both found contentment elsewhere. The saddest thing is that Pauline and Michael were not amateurs, but rather veterans – they were two good people who really, really tried.

four-half-stars
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The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
Published by Random House on October 13th 2009
Genres: Fiction, General, Romance, Historical
Pages: 320
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781407020631


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8 thoughts on “Review: The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler

  1. Pleased to see you review an Anne Tyler, I’ve read quite few of her novels and to begin with I thought I had read this one but now I’m not sure. The plot sounds familiar but I can’t find a copy, though the cover image has been used a lot (‘Private Eye’ magazine has an occasional column pointing out such things!)

    This sounds a typical Tyler novel, the examination of relationships and marriages in particular, but always seemingly ordinary people who have quite fascinating stories to tell of their lives. She always leaves me wondering what her own life has been like, as she seems to write greatly from experience rather than imagination (something the late Carol Shields also excelled at.)

    Thanks for yet another comprehensive review which encourages me to track down a copy!

    1. If you do realise that you’ve read it, do let me know what you think – the lives of Pauline and Michael stuck around in my head over the weekend – I did feel so very sorry for them both. But, I’ll be honest, mostly Pauline … not sure if I’m being entirely fair but there you go.

  2. The flash forward technique in this novel is really effective. Each time you move to the next chapter something unexpected has happened in the lives of the characters. There are some beautifully written sections in the book. I particularly recall the description of George’s pent-up emotions on losing and re-gaining his older sister.

    1. Yes – George’s irritation and uncertainty about how to react are caught so perfectly there – after all that time, with so much hurt, how do you re-admit a sibling like that into your life? It was a strange book but one that I’ve thought of often since.
      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. Wonderful review of a wonderful novel. You captured much of how I felt about the characters especially Michael and Pauline and how hard they tried to make the marriage work. Well done!

  4. This has always seemed to me to be primarily about the damage that can be done by rushing into marriage because it’s the expected thing to do. Pauline and Michael waste decades of their lives and are both damaged as a result, all because they’re wrong for each other. I’m not even sure that they loved each other; they had a brief attraction and convinced themselves it was love because that’s what they were expected to do. Whenever I go back to the book, I’m frustrated by the thought of how much happier they could have been with other people (as Michael eventually was, but as Pauline never got the chance to be). It’s a tragic story for that reason.

    1. I agree – it’s that sense of precious spans of life lost to a mis-step. I think that there was love there of a sort – I remember reading the passage where Michael watched Pauline with Pagan and could see another side to her – but it wasn’t the right kind and it was not enough. They were just too different as people. But it also captures the way that the person who you’re with at that key point of your life can define you. Even if Michael’s second marriage ends up being longer than his first, it will be his union with Pauline that people will remember. Fascinating book.

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