Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

The Amateur Marriage: A Novel

Anne Tyler
Knopf (2004) 306 pages
* * *

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Note: Due to the nature of this book, the present review contains "spoilers," an infringement of my espoused Cardinal Rule. But not too many, and only when they're necessitated by an attempt at clarity. —K.M.

The Tyler Dynamic

This is Anne Tyler's sixteenth novel, and from its opening, she launches forth with what is finally, so far as I know, among her most engaging and complex works yet. Not that I've read all of her books—I've read three before this—but those are among her most celebrated novels, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, and the wonderful, feel-good A Patchwork Planet (I confess to not having read Earthly Possessions, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, or Saint Maybe). But the present novel measures up, and will not disappoint dedicated Tyler fans, of which there are many.

The Amateur Marriage is composed in ten titled chapters—episodic sections in the life of a couple, Michael and Pauline Anton, from before their WW II-time marriage through their lives with their children and grandchildren. Each episode stands alone quite well, as a story, which makes for convenient "stopping places" for the reader. None stands alone, however, and each is indispensable to the progress of the story as a whole; there are time gaps of several years between each episode, which are explained in the actions and dialogue of the next.

Michael is the rather bland Polish-Catholic son of a single mother whom he's devoted to, and the grocery store where they work is where he accidentally meets the high-strung, protestant, non-Polish Pauline Barclay, who has come into the store with her friends seeking minor first aid for a cut she got while getting off a streetcar too fast at an Army enlistment parade in the post-Pearl Harbor patriotic fervor. They're married right after Michael returns to Baltimore after suffering a freak accident in Basic. They have three children, the years go by, they drift apart. Their oldest daughter takes off for the Bay, they look for her, and end up raising her son instead.

If that's a "spoiler," sorry. But it's the essential premise for reviewing this novel, which is essentially about how people seem to take almost random paths in life, taking the Path of Least Resistance, so to speak, and essentially grow through their experiences into different people. The problem is not that this has been done before and then some; it's that for most of the novel after the engrossing first chapter Tyler is just coasting, relying on plot, premise, and rather largely-drawn period color images of the requisite eras (WW II, the '50s, the '60s, etc.) at the expense of what's most important to a book like this: characterization. All the characters are very thinly drawn—we get little sense of any of them, and care little for them. Halfway through the novel, one wonders where this is all going, really, and hopes it doesn't end as tepidly as its opening chapters.

But it doesn't. It's all brought together in the 40-page seventh episode "The World Doesn't End" (and nor does the book, thank God), in which Tyler pulls off some of the most emotively effective character writing of her career. For the first time, we really see into Michael, or rather the man that Michael has become—a strange gambit of point-of-view that would have been impossible without the preceding chapters. His grandson comes "alive", as does now ex-wife Pauline, changes that are vividly augmented by the re-introduction of a minor character from early in the book, Anna, who played the piano at Michael and Pauline's wedding and now resurfaces as both a piano teacher at the arts school Pagan attends—and Michael's mid-life love interest. The deft touches of characterization and mood resonate realistic and true.

If I could write like this, I would.

—Anna, who's probably about 50 when we meet her again, and who ages with the rest of the characters throughout the novel, might make the reader wonder fleetingly if she's a bit of a Portrait of the Artist, who is now 63. I don't know Anne, so I don't know, and in the context of the fine passages of description that characterize Anna, I don't care—but let me just say that for me, Anna is the most strikingly desirable character I've come across in recent contemporary literature. She's sexy as all, and real, which is part of her appeal…look. I've always wanted a daughter named Anna, but since I live at an Artist's Colony these days that's a bit…untenable for most women, but now, I want to meet somebody like Anna, or the way she's presented in chapter seven. I do! She may coast a bit and make me wonder where the book is going, but when she really gets rolling, when she really decides to crank it up, Anne Tyler can make a grown man cry. Yes, you start me up. Whooh.

I'm sure other reviewers have noticed this Mid-Book Takeoff device, and have cogent and lucent explanations for it—go to http://reviewsofbooks.com and see what others have to say—I haven't looked. But it doesn't stop there—Pauline's character only really emerges in chapter eight, when she's sixty-four, "The underside of her upper arms [she notices in the mirror] remind[ing] her of their old Dodge's felt ceiling, which had somehow come unstuck from the roof and used to hang down in loose swags." Memorable and noteworthy image—it reminds me of the ceiling of my Cutlass after they left the windows down in the rain during a brake job at Blue Angel Automotive in Pensacola. But the dialogue is as tight and suggestive of what Frost called "internal weather" during Pauline's various exchanges with others during the section—and we finally pity her, and understand. Maybe pity isn't what she wants (or maybe it is)—but we understand, and we feel it. After this, even the chapter-closing descriptions resonate. Tyler knows closure—of a section, a chapter. Of whole novels, even—like life, they're often left open-ended.

Could it be that, as with so many of her other characters, the suggestion is that people can only truly be real when they're…alone? How many of us secretly feel this in our own lives, and yet seem miserable when we're finally with another? Is this part of the reason so many of Tyler's most poignant and affecting passages end with question marks? A book about the three-generation life of an American family is necessarily to some degree a microcosm of the human condition, as Tyler sees it, as she encourages us to see it.

And another standard Tyler theme, well presented in the final chapters of the book: those things that attract us to people are often the very qualities we grow to detest. But like all humanity, the generations of a family tend to repeat themselves—and Tyler's narrative morphs into a gut-twisting recognition that this human problem is, in the end, essentially an individual crisis. And we come to miss those people that we send away—because we miss ourselves.

Other characters come alive as well, some quite integral to the story—and they go through the same things, in only slightly different ways. The Tyler Dynamic.

—I've seen and felt it, and so have you, and we haven't even started yet. Yes, this is the story of upper-middle class Baltimore suburbanites, as in so many of Anne Tyler's novels—but these characters represent a microcosm, as I've said, and are, in the end, as aware of their own foibles and fripperies as the lower-class Brooklyn Italian immigrants in, say, DeLillo's Underworld. Though the truest mark of Tyler's integrity is her ending, which brings us up to the present—it ends the way most of our worlds do. Like Eliot's Wasteland, or even DeLillo's, with all the trappings and luxuries of post-modernity still smugly in their place.

And finally, at the novel's end, Michael has the last word, so to speak, in a dream in which he sees Glenda from The Wizard of Oz. She tells him, "Don't look back, if you ever want to see your home again."

—I'm not exactly sure why that line affected me so strongly, but it did.


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