Fiction – paperback; Vintage (exclusive edition for Red magazine); 306 pages; 2005.
What is it that makes a marriage work? How much give and how much take is acceptable? Should each partner have a diametrically opposed personality to balance things out? Or is it better to be compatible in temperament and attitude?
What happens to the children if things go wrong? And to what extent does the state of our parent’s marriage reflect our own personalities and attitudes?
These questions — and so many more — form the backbone of this astonishingly perceptive and near-perfect novel by Anne Tyler.
The Amateur Marriage spans three generations of one family living in suburban Baltimore. It charts the course of one couple’s life together, beginning with their whirlwind war-time romance, marriage, children and then, unsurprisingly, their divorce some 30 years later. This is not a match made in heaven.
Michael Anton, the son of Polish immigrants, is plodding, cautious, thorough and little on the dull side, while Pauline is good-looking, gregarious, spontaneous and slightly scatty. Michael is content to run his mother’s grocery store over which they live, but Pauline wants so much more, including a new house in the suburbs to bring up their young family.
Their life is filled with spats, hurtful off-the-cuff remarks and very little kindness. It is obvious that they are both seeking something that their opposite number cannot provide but fail to find a way out of their predicament: this is an era in which counselling is not an option.
It is not until their eldest child, 17-year-old Lindy, runs away from home that the cracks in their marriage begin to take their toll: Pauline thinks the rifts can be patched but Michael’s dogged stubbornness will not yield. When they later inherit a grandchild they did not know existed they muddle through until Michael, unable to take his wife’s unpredictable moods any longer, walks out…
But there is much more to this story than this perceptive and oh-so true dissection of a marriage. It’s also a story about family relationships, the ties between siblings and how we cling to the past to make sense of the future.
Quite akin to Tyler’s highly acclaimed (and my personal favourite) Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, it reveals how the little things — everyday routines, conversations and decisions — make up the bigger picture of our lives. It’s a very knowing novel, incisive and tuned-in to what makes ordinary people tick, and for that reason Tyler’s cast of characters and their individual behaviours seem completely believable: the Anton’s could, indeed, be your next-door neighbours.
If you are looking for a thoughtful, intelligent, page-turning read that centres on family life, provides a good dose of tragedy tempered by comedy (the humour is particularly endearing), then The Amateur Marriage should fit the bill perfectly.