Author: Anne Tyler
Publication info: Ballantine, 2004
Pages: 317 (including an interview with the author and discussion questions)
Finally! I’ve read an Anne Tyler book.
This is an author I’ve been aware of for many years. She’s a favorite of my parents’, and I know she’s acclaimed as a great modern literary author. I was so confident she was good that I even recommended her books to more than one person—without reading them myself. One of these people is my wife, who finally got me to read Anne Tyler. I’m glad I finally made it.
The Amateur Marriage is a chronicle of a failed relationship. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for anyone, but the interest of the story lies not in the fact that the marriage is a failure but in how and why it fails. It’s the story of Michael and Pauline, who meet the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and, in all the excitement, think they have fallen in love. And perhaps they really have at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are not well suited to each other. At Pauline’s insistence (and to his mother’s chagrin) Michael enlists in the army, but when he comes home early after a training accident, he proposes to her. She accepts even though she has already started to lose interest during his absence. They get married, and it’s all downhill from there.
The novel spans many decades, checking in periodically to show the different crises Michael and Pauline go through. By the end of the book I feel like I’ve been on a lifelong journey with them. And it seems so real. What Tyler does so well, I think, is showing life as it really is, people as they really are. This isn’t like your popular romance or thriller with a perfect plot arc and a stunning conclusion—this is an intensely believable look at real, messy life.
And that’s what I find so disturbing about it. Sometimes as I read it, I felt like their lives were my own and I was doomed to the same fate as they. Are all marriages hopeless? Even if it isn’t a disaster, are married people bound to drift apart like Michael and Pauline? After thinking about it for a while, I realized that the answer is no.
What I think this book shows, even if it doesn’t come right out and say it, is that a marriage succeeds or fails based on the choices the spouses make. And while the choice of who and when to marry is certainly a significant one, it is not the only one that matters, nor is it the last. Marriage, just like life in general, is a continuing series of choices. It’s a nonstop effort, ideally, to improve. The reason Michael and Pauline fail is that they stop trying.
I see it particularly in Michael’s character. He’s easy to side with at first because Pauline is emotionally turbulent and even unfaithful. But after a while it becomes clear that Michael simply isn’t invested any more. He decides that he doesn’t really like his wife and pulls back emotionally, instead putting all his energy into his grocery business. He doesn’t abuse her or anything—in fact quite the opposite, “no doubt scoring points in heaven for his restraint,” as Pauline sees it. It’s an interesting point that really hit home to me: You might be proud of your emotional self-control, but if it comes at the price of coldness and distance from the ones you should be closest to, it can be just as damaging. Michael was guilty of that, perhaps making him the worse of the two parties.
The saddest part is that even after the marriage has ended (again, hope I haven’t spoiled it), neither of them recognizes their mistakes. As they reflect on what went wrong, they see themselves as victims of either fate or each other and fail to see what they need to change about themselves. There is a serious lack of contrition throughout the novel, including other characters who do hurtful things. But that’s one of the most important traits you need to have to make a marriage work: the ability to recognize when you’ve done wrong, take responsibility for it, and earnestly try to do better. Michael and Pauline fail in this regard, making their story a sad one indeed.
I highly recommend The Amateur Marriage if you don’t mind a story that isn’t terribly uplifting. It’s a tragic story, but it gives you a lot to think about. That’s not to say the book isn’t funny. Even with all the sadness, there’s plenty of humor to give you something to smile at. Anne Tyler is an excellent writer. I definitely plan to read more of her work in the future.