three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
By: 
Anne Tyler
user_rating: 
0

A-AskMeAnythingOn the night of their 30th wedding anniversary, Pauline says to her husband, Michael, "I think it's been a fun kind of marriage." "It has not been fun," he replies. "It's been hell." And he walks out on a relationship that had never become "wise and seasoned."

The Amateur Marriage chronicles the six decades spanning this relationship's hesitant start, painful endurance, final dissolution, and effect on successive generations. At the outset of World War II, Pauline jumps off a streetcar to join an enlistment parade. Bruised, she runs into Michael's family's Baltimore grocery store for aid. Before they know itÑor each otherÑMichael and Pauline are engaged. Pauline knows it's not the right match. She's self-centered, impulsive, emotional; he's patronizing, self-controlled. Yet she can't bear to break off the engagement when Michael returns home, wounded, from the war. She "had just wanted a boy of her own to send off to war," Michael reasons many years later. Thus begins their "amateur marriage."
Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95.

Critical Themes

Love turned upside down. Nobody's to blame, but there it is. A failed marriage. Pauline had planned to break the engagement, but then thought, "You can't jilt a man in a hospital bed." Tyler starts with a rushed marriage and ends with heartbreak, disappointment, and separation. Along the way, she shows the psychological costs of decades of unhappiness. Pauline and Michael's story seems so ordinary "as to be archetypal: married in haste, they repent at leisure" (St. Petersburg Times). The message: move on before it's too late.

The short stories. Each of the novel's 10 chapters could stand alone as a short story. The pieces alternate between Michael and Pauline's perspectives and advance their stories between five and 10 years. In this way neither becomes a villain. And rather than taking us "step by step through the vicissitudes of this marriage," notes the San Antonio Express-News, Tyler aptly shows how life "flies by at a familiar, scary pace."

Just another Baltimore family. Tyler delves deeper and more darkly into her characters this time, but there's still some family resemblance. Pauline looks like the impetuous Muriel of Accident Tourist and Maggie in Breathing Lessons; Michael resembles the calmly predictable Macon and Ira. As always, Tyler pairs together mismatched individuals. But there's nothing wrong with formulas from "one of our old reliables" (San Jose Mercury News).

DFW Star Telegram 4.5 of 5 Stars
"...in the end, the knowledge we take from The Amateur Marriage is how much damage the lack of self-awarenessÑthe inability to view ourselves from the outsideÑcan inflict and how much scar tissue love builds to survive it." Amy Culbertson

Pittsburgh Post-Gaz 4 of 5 Stars
"Tyler has tracked characters through the years before, but she seems to delve deeper or maybe just longer this time. ... Amateur Marriage left me feeling sad the way few other Tyler novels have." Barbara Vancheri

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"They are our own families; they are ourselves; and it is our own desperate desire to understand the people we love, as well as the people who hurt us and whom we hurt, that keeps us reading with fervor." Jessica Treadway

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Because I enjoyed and admired this novel, I almost hesitate to mention that there's no obscenity, no graphic sex, no vivisection, no forensic detail and no explosions." Coleen Grisson

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he Antons' discord feels darker, less comic, than the conflicts in her previous books. And this darkness feels irredeemable..." Barbara Liss

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Amateur Marriage may be Tyler's most ambitiously plotted book yet. ...- Michael and Pauline may have had an amateur marriage, but Anne Tyler is a pro all the way." Adam Woog

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"...Tyler's most ambitious work, ranging over 60 years of American experience, from the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the anniversary of that day in 2001. ... [Tyler has a] perfect sense of pace and sly construction of implicating events." William H. Pritchard

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Gelareh Asayesh

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"Tyler's command of what will move a story forward and engross a reader thoroughly is faultlessÑI found myself thinking about this novel and wanting to get back to it when I had to put it down. At the same time, though, I finished wanting, as the Grinch comes to realize, just a little bit more." Martha Southgate

SF Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"...imperfect but ultimately affecting. ... What one is left with is the feeling of having spent a lifetime with these characters, albeit in punctuated visits, and with a great deal withheld." Tom Barbash

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Her characters, although less eccentric and endearing than many she's created, still come off the page without a jarring note." Heller McAlpin

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"All the 'formulaic' characters have the disconcerting ability to totally surprise the reader and each other. ... The Amateur Marriage presents itself as compassionate, but I found it a very hopeless book." Carolyn See

Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"The rewards of this novel come sentence by sentence. As a whole, it doesn't rock the soul like [Carol Shield's] Unless or offer the power of a big social novel like [Philip Roth's] American Pastoral. Because it's more a portrait than a narrative, and because the object of study is an unhappy marriage, it has a dour quality not found in the author's earlier work." Karen Sandstrom

San Jose Mercury News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Part of the problem is that Michael is a fully realized character and Pauline isn't. ... The Amateur Marriage has its draggy sections and squishy spots, but it is never less than insightful about the abrasive but essential relationships of husbands and wives, parents and children." Charles Matthews

Detroit Free Press 2 of 5 Stars
"The Amateur Marriage ends up being a less-than-great Tyler novel, however, mostly because it's just so hard to get a handle on Michael. The exasperating, childish Pauline steals the stage..." Marta Salij

Critical Summary

Tyler reliably dredges up the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly of domestic life in Baltimore. Though "seldom if ever spiteful," notes the New York Times Book Review, Tyler is a "mischief-maker" in the spirit of Jane Austen. Amateur Marriage, while departing from the trademark quirkiness of previous novels, affirms that reputation. Against the backdrop of six decades of American lifeÑfrom the bombing of Hiroshima through September 11, from the old neighborhood to the slums, from the tract homes of the '50s and the hippie '60s to the present day, Tyler introduces a typical family. Typical, that is, in a most mundane way: a coterie of husbands and wives, parents and children trying to survive life's twists while preserving an unhappy status quo.

Tyler casts an atypically dark look at a hasty wartime marriage and its aftermath. By introducing the Anton family's flaws in a nonjudgmental, sympathetic, and even amused tone, she exposes the aching loneliness of life alone and the crushing weight of life together. It's a heavier novel, lightened by a narrative structure that sidesteps the tedium of multigenerational epics. If we miss some key events between chapters, so what? Critics commend Tyler for giving equal voice to Pauline and Michael, but disagree about their relative value. Some saw Pauline as the novel's emotional core and Michael as Tyler's stock, stoic male. Others thought the opposite. Some even viewed the Antons as so ordinary as to be a bit dull. Yet most considered their runaway daughter Lindy, "zapped and fried and hopped and wigged out," as the weak link. As a casualty of the marriage and the era, Lindy might have spoken upÑbut her reappearance 29 years after her disappearance emphasizes her absence. Amateur Marriage has some flaws. Yet, with her usual penetrating insight, Tyler captures life at its most ordinary, then carves it open to dissect the bonds that linger on.