Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage

Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage

As if deliberately trying to weed out the weak-willed with a qualifying round, Anne Tyler opens her latest book, The Amateur Marriage, with a cloying, cutesy chapter that introduces her protagonists from the chummy point of view of an entire East Baltimore community. Michael Anton, the quiet teenage son of a bitter, widowed grocer, meets his future wife, Pauline Barclay, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As patriotic fervor sweeps his insular Polish community, Michael enlists in the army primarily to uphold his image in Pauline's eyes; when he returns from the war and proposes to her, she accepts primarily to uphold her image in his. From this inauspicious beginning, they launch a marriage full of misaligned expectations and mutual recrimination. What initially seems like seriousness and deliberation on Michael's part turns out to be stodgy dullness, while Pauline's vivacious energy is revealed as flightiness and a bent for histrionics. Without ever coming to understand each other, they muddle through their "amateur marriage," with Pauline resenting Michael's oppressive, unimaginative version of domesticity, and Michael resenting Pauline's inexplicable flurries of emotion. They have children, who cringe or rebel in the face of their constant fights, and those children grow up and provide grandchildren. After her awkward, Garrison Keillor-esque opening, Tyler lets many of these family members speak from their own points of view, an approach that provides some balance. Michael and Pauline both come across as equally unlikable, with neither as the obvious victim, and by letting later generations share the stage, Tyler builds a relatively holistic image of an unhappy marriage, showing how the ripple effects can far outlast the actual relationship. But in skimming between perspectives, Tyler lets a great deal fall between the cracks. Each chapter provides a jarring chronological leap, leaving characters and key contentions in the dust. More than once, a new chapter eventually reveals that a vibrant figure from the previous chapter has already died and been buried, mourned, and relegated to the distant past. The effect is a novel broad in scope but shallow in effect and characterization. Michael and Pauline, for all the details that go into them, come across as hollow stereotypes, while the members of their extended family are shadows in their wake. And Tyler's seeming theme—that 1950s America was kind of repressed, and the people who came of age during WWII had some trouble adapting to the social changes of the '60s and '70s—lacks any new twist or fresh insight. It's a familiar premise, just as Michael and Pauline are familiar stock characters. But while familiarity can be comforting and reassuring, it just as often breeds contempt.

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