Anne Tyler's newest novel, THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE, is one of her best. She is known for her "typically American" tales that focus on the paradoxes in the lives of everyday people, who struggle with love, relationships, family, order and disorder. She rents the fabric most families hide behind as they try to mask the holes that threaten to tear apart the material that strains to keep them together. For over forty years readers have come to expect Tyler's canvas to be illuminated by epiphanies, eccentricities, psychological insights, memorable characters and an imagination that allows for a kind of playfulness despite the rockslides.
THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE begins in 1941, just after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Pauline swooped into the Anton family grocery store with a cut on her head. As soon as Michael Anton saw her he was swept off his feet, almost as though he had been waiting for her. After he applies first aid to her wound, she invites him to join her and her friends, all of whom are going to cheer the neighborhood boys who are signing up to fight the "Japs." As if in a dream, Michael grabs his ill-fitting jacket and follows this engaging girl out of the shop. They join the crowd that is caught up in the excitement of a parade in honor of the boys who are enlisting to fight a war in far off places.
Pauline asks Michael if he will be going with these boys, to which he responded, "Well … naturally I will be!" As such things can happen, without a single thought to his duties, to his mother, to his life or to the ramifications of his actions, as if on a lark, Michael enlists.
Before Michael knows it, he is off to fight the war. Unfortunately he returns home wounded; he must use a cane and walks with a limp that will stay with him for the rest of his life. While he was away, his fiancé, Pauline, started having doubts about him. After all, they barely know each other and they are still very young. But Michael is starry-eyed and absolutely committed to their forthcoming marriage. Nothing, or nobody, can persuade him that they should not marry --- not even Pauline, who tells him that she has changed her mind. With his tunnel vision and narrowly focused idealism, he is not to be deterred. The marriage takes place as planned. After a short honeymoon they return to Baltimore and move into the tiny apartment above the grocery store with Michael's aging mother.
"Pauline believed that marriage was an interweaving of souls, while Michael viewed it as two people traveling side by side but separately." Two such different worldviews lead to arguments and Michael asks himself one day if it's "possible to dislike one's own wife." In the beginning the couple works hard to remain above their smoldering resentments. Pauline becomes pregnant, gives birth to Lindy, quickly gets pregnant again and Karen enters their crowded lives. Too soon after their second baby makes her entrance into the world, George is conceived and takes his place in the already burgeoning family. By this time the walls of the tiny apartment don't seem able to contain the people or emotions that are fulminating toward a volcanic eruption as the days pass, oh so slowly.
After years of nagging, Pauline convinces Michael that they have to move from above the grocery store to a place where everyone has some space. Thus, they schlep old Mrs. Anton, the three children and themselves, en masse, out to the suburbs. "The entrance to Elmview Acres was a double wrought-iron gate" that opened onto a small community of "ticky-tacky" ranch homes set on green lots. The atmosphere was one of peaceful safety in a structured and organized manner. Many such communities bloomed across the landscape in post World War II America in order to accommodate the soldiers who had returned from the war, married their sweethearts and needed to buy into the "dream."
As the novel further unfolds, Tyler fractures time and narrative. She gives us both Michael's and Pauline's side of the story. Decades pass. They fight, their children grow up, Mrs. Anton is a steady presence among them and all seems to be as it should --- until 1960, when their world is forever shattered. Lindy, who had always been a self-contained child, disappears without a trace. The sixties were heating up with issues that flowed through the cracks in society and spread like hot lava over the lives of every American household. The world was exploding. The Vietnam War was the catalyst for war protestors, activists were marching for women's and civil rights, the sexual revolution was born with the "Pill" and the drug culture emerged.
The void that Lindy's disappearance creates in the Anton family slowly heals but remains a painful scar. They all move on with their lives. Karen and George move quietly into the background of their parents' lives, leaving the reader with Pauline and Michael. This mismatched couple, who grows apart each day but whose roots are so entangled they cannot breathe, merely remain in a state of stasis. Then, on that fateful evening when they are "celebrating" their thirty years together, they begin to reminisce about their wedding night. And Pauline, ever the "cock-eyed optimist" who sees the world through rose-colored glasses, tries to rewrite their history: "So what if we fight a bit? I just think that proves we have a very spirited marriage!"
At long last, Michael finally lets loose: " 'It has not been fun … it's been hell. All this shouting and weeping and carrying on,' he said. Stalking off, slamming doors, kicking furniture, throwing my clothes out the window, locking me out of the house.' " Pauline insists that Michael leave the house for good if he is as miserable as he claims to be. He does. And, after three decades together, their marriage is suddenly over.
The old cliché that "time heals all wounds" lurks beneath the surface of THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE, but Tyler doesn't really dig down to it in any obvious ways. Rather, as in real life, her fictional world continues to turn, and one at a time each character moves on with his/her wounds, bound at some time to heal. As in all of her works, Tyler has woven truisms and object lessons that will make readers nod knowingly. Tyler's "people" are so familiar that readers will think, "Of course I know people like 'them' don't we all?" Despite being highly idiosyncratic, the things that set them apart actually make them more accessible. Human nature is what fascinates Anne Tyler and she plays with it as if it were modeling clay. In her hands she fashions people, places, events, atmospheres, pain and joy with a smooth narrative style that is punctuated with life lessons for anyone who chooses to see them.
Fans of Tyler will not be disappointed in THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE, and those new to her work will be motivated to explore her other novels. Her many talents continue to blossom with age, and her touch remains as gentle as it is firm.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 20, 2011