THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, $24.95, 306 pp
Reviewed by GELAREH ASAYESH
You don't have to be from Baltimore to feel yourself inhabiting Anne Tyler's novels; she navigates the unnamed landscapes of our lives as surely as she does Northern Parkway or Elmview Acres, the imaginary subdivision where the protagonists of her 16th novel, The Amateur Marriage, spend most of their three decades of married life. It is Tyler's particular genius to capture life at its most mundane, then redeem it with a poignant humanity; to reveal the callousness of her characters, then peel back the layers to where finer feelings lurk. The novel builds gently but inexorably, its narrative force a powerful undertow, fed not by cataclysmic events but by the characters' helplessness in the face of their own limitations, and those of others.
Michael and Pauline's story is so ordinary as to be archetypal: married in haste, they repent at leisure. The novel opens in 1941, when wartime euphoria propels stolid Michael Anton, the only surviving son of a Polish widow, into a romance with the flighty, lovely, Protestant Pauline Barclay. His mother needs him to run the family grocery store, but Michael enlists because Pauline expects him to. When he's accidentally wounded by a fellow soldier and sent home, the couple marries. Along with the whole neighborhood, they're caught up in their own myth.
The couple have three children and move from the cramped apartment over the grocery store into a California ranchette in the suburbs _ Elmview Acres _ leaving the close-knit Polish neighborhood of Michael's youth behind. The children grow and so do the rifts in the marriage. Each in turn contemplates their reasons for marrying each other ("She had no one to say goodbye to when the war began. . . . Was that the whole explanation? That she had just wanted a boy of her own to send off to war?")
Pauline flirts with an affair, but they muddle along. Then Lindy, their eldest daughter, runs away from home at age 17. Lindy's troubles lay bare the dysfunction in the Anton family unit, a malaise rooted in the parents' endless cycle of quarrels and reconciliations. Everyone copes ineffectually and alone with Lindy's loss. Years later, she surfaces in San Francisco, a druggie with a neglected young son. When Lindy disappears again, Michael and Pauline end up raising their grandson, Pagan. But although the experience teaches them a new appreciation of each other, Michael leaves Pauline after celebrating their 30th anniversary. No unusual event precipitates this sudden end. The bond between them is frayed and it finally snaps.
The novel doesn't end there and nor, in a sense, does the marriage. Michael remarries, but he still shovels Pauline's walk when it snows. The two are still partners in raising their adolescent grandson. More significantly, they are still points of reference for each other.
Lives go on and lives end _ we discover the small changes and the big ones suddenly, because each chapter takes place years after the last one. This device not only prevents the tediousness often associated with multigenerational sagas; it adds tension and suspense and at times an unbearable poignancy to the narrative. By the time Lindy returns, now in her 40s, her family has changed beyond recognition; the old neighborhood has become a slum, and the counterculture years have yielded to sober affluence.
Tyler spans 60 years and three generations in 10 spare, beautiful chapters; each richly layered expositions of her characters. Foolish Pauline, at first easy to despise, demonstrates depth and resilience as well as an irrepressible joie de vivre. Narrow, stodgy Michael is full of pain and confusion. Their younger children, George and Karen, are overshadowed by their strong-willed older sister. The glaring gap in the novel is Lindy, who never appears except through the lens of others. Tyler presents her as both a casualty of the marriage and a destructive force, but fails to explore this pivotal character.
The Amateur Marriage might better have been called The Accidental Marriage. In this book as in her celebrated novel The Accidental Tourist, Tyler explores how little in life is truly intentional. Her characters are flotsam and jetsam bobbing on the waves, pondering their own helplessness even as they try to do what they can given who they are.
In the end, the "what went wrong" question goes unanswered. Of more relevance is the fruit of Michael and Pauline's accidental union: a family, however imperfect, and a bond that outlasts the marriage. In her depiction of a love at once equivocal and infinite, Tyler has once again shown us our limits, along with our capacity for transcending them.
Gelareh Asayesh is the author of Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America.