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The Boring Marriage
on 24 March 2016
Anne Tyler's Orange Prize-shortlisted 'The Amateur Marriage' tells the story of the unhappy and profoundly monotonous marriage of Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay. The couple meet during World War II. Michael is a sturdy, good-looking Polish American, with no interests or ambitions other than running the family grocery business and looking after his widowed mother. Pauline is a pretty feather-head, desperate to have a soldier boyfriend; which she gets when she persuades Michael to enlist. However, during his training, Pauline finds other soldiers to admire, and begins to wonder if she's not making a mistake. Then, Michael is wounded in a training accident, and she feels honour-bound to accept his proposal of marriage. A last ditch attempt on Pauline's part to break free (at the church, on her wedding day) ends in a moment when her friends tell her not to be so silly. So, she marries Michael, and the couple condemn each other to some thirty years and more of total misery.
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?