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The Amateur Marriage Paperback – 2 Sep 2004
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"A brilliant writer…funny, tragic, wise" (Lynne Truss Independent)
"Anne Tyler is a formidably skilful story-teller, with every narrative trick at her effortless command" (Daily Telegraph)
"Tyler's compelling, moving and often amusing tale is the story of any marriage - every page brings a smile of recognition to the reader" (Daily Mail)
"The meanings of this beautifully written novel reach far wider than Baltimore. I shed a tear as I finished the Antons' story" (Evening Standard)
"Tyler is an exquisite chronicler of the everyday" (Observer)
From the incomparable Anne Tyler, a rich and compelling novel, spanning three generations, about a mismatched marriage - and its consequences. Michael and Pauline seemed like the perfect couple - young, good-looking, made for each other. The moment she walked into his mother's grocery store in Baltimore, he was smitten, and in the heat of World War II fervour, they marry in haste. From the sound of the cash register in the old grocery to the counterculture jargon of the sixties, from the miniskirts to the multilayers of later years, Anne Tyler captures the nuances of everyday life with telling precision and sly humour.See all Product description
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As this is a later Anne Tyler novel, the misery is exceptionally low-key. All the big events either don't happen at all (Michael never makes it to fight in World War II) or happen offstage (the couple's daughter Lindy's escape into a wild drink-and-drugs-and-sex fuelled life on the West Coast in the 1960s - Tyler's much more interested in telling us about the Cheerios that Lindy's son Pagan has for breakfast). Michael and Pauline squabble and bicker in a low-key way. Pauline is tempted to have an affair with a local divorce, who she teaches to make meatloaf, but then changes her mind. Michael expresses bewilderment whenever she gets upset. Of their three children, Lindy becomes a rebel, and eventually runs away (her parents never having thought to talk to her about the reasons she is rebelling), not to be seen for many years; George, as sturdy and dependable as his father, becomes a successful businessman with little personality; and Karen, the youngest daughter, changes her name back to its Polish original and becomes a high-flying lawyer (and virtually disappears from the book, career-women not having much presence in Tyler-land in its later forms). The couple's decision to adopt Lindy's sulky little son Pagan (after Lindy vanishes) doesn't bring them closer together, and in the end Michael makes a bid for freedom - but does he really want it?
Frankly, I couldn't care. I've not hugely enjoyed any of the Anne Tyler's I've read apart from her 1982 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant', but this was the dullest and most irritating I've come across. The characters are not only unsympathetic, they are deadly dull. Michael is a not-very-bright bore, who, as he admits, has 'no interests, and no hobbies'. Pauline is a pretty airhead who later becomes a petulant, shrewish and ultimately vengeful housewife, and apart from a vague interest in cookery, and a rather sentimental love of children and feeding them ice-cream, appears to have few interests either, and to be pretty ineffective (much is made of her great incompetence as a driver, which I think is supposed to be funny). Lindy is a 'rebel without a cause' who undergoes an unconvincing metamorphoses to sentimental goody-goody later on - and because we never really get the story from her point of view, there's no way of telling whether the rebellion was because Michael and Pauline's unhappy marriage profoundly damaged her. George is stolid and rather sullen, Karen (apart from one of those rather sugary chapters 'told from the small child's point of view) that Tyler's tried out in later fiction, with lots of referring to 'Karen's mother said..') so absent as to have no personality (and the parents' harking endlessly on her plainness was cruel). Mother Anton is a caricature of the demanding mother-in-law (the scene where she refuses lunch because Pauline's back 20 minutes late and 'I've gone beyond hunger' tipped into farce). Of the other characters, the only one who really came to life was Pauline's friend Anna the music teacher, whose calm self-containment and devotion to work was rather attractive. But I couldn't work out what she saw in Michael!
There was also very little plot, even though the novel covered some 50 years. Much of the novel was concerned with endless domestic squabbling and unhappy family get-togethers in suburban houses. World War II, Flower Power, Vietnam and the rest were all alluded to vaguely but never played an important role in the narrative. Jobs - Karen's work as a lawyer, Pagan's as a child therapist, Lindy's later teaching career - came very much second to endless descriptions of suburban Baltimore domestica. No one apart from Anna appeared to have any passionate interests. The novel became increasingly meandering, the dramatic scene near the end invented, I felt, to bring the book to some sort of a close. And the book ended in an atmosphere of cloying sentimentality, with a lot of rubbish theorizing about how 'the first marriage is the only marriage', and a sense of 'happy families' that I feel would never have come into being for the boring and dysfunctional Antons.
I've rated this at two stars because the writing style is good and fluent - but I felt in terms of plot, character and atmosphere this was a no-goer, both patronizing and sentimental. Perhaps it's time for Tyler to find another subject other than meandering suburban marriages among the 'everyday folk' of Baltimore?
The fearless and pushy Pauline is everything he is not. Warm, passionate, witty, silly and superficial she knocks him off his feet.
Right from the start, her influence leads to hilarity and disaster. She assumes he is enlisting- so he does, only to return with what can only be called a bum wound, and the pronounced limp with which he is plagued for the rest of his life.
By then, the fickle Pauline has gone off him but she marries him anyway, for the romance and sport of it.
What ensues is a lifelong spat between two people who are fundamentally unsuited, locked in by love and habit.
They confound and punish each other daily. Pauline is always optimistic and sprightly, Michael stolid and suspicious.
They want different things: Pauline a modern house and a modern life, Michael, tradition and convention.
She rails and rallies against his natural grumpiness and lack of imagination, but he is usually right except in matters of their children.
When a family disaster strikes it is Pauline who knows what to do, taking care of others and providing funds of love, practicality and natural generosity.
Michael, successful grocery shop owner, is a bemused emotionally miserly bystander compared with such a vibrant and outgoing spouse. His good qualities are somehow eclipsed and altered by hers. Each diminishes the other despite their love.
The thing they have in common is their innocence and lack of insight into their family. This is a common theme for the writer and one she cleverly exposes.
The course of their lives and those of their children and grandchildren is charted in this charming and moving story.
Marriage can be an accident of life, something inevitable which should in hindsight, have been avoided.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it has been noted.
There are more unhappy marriages than happy. As their estranged daughter Linnet remarks ' You were ice, she was glass....' only superficially similar the two do not see the collateral damage of their constant bickering and competitiveness.
Also a great insight into American family life of the 1950's; hilarious menus and recipes were of great interest to me. My personal favourite was 'Meat Loaf Orientale' a seductive collation of mince and canned noodles!
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