Sunday, January 18, 2004
Anne Tyler's 16th novel, "The Amateur Marriage," is framed by two world-changing events. The book begins during World War II and ends more than a half-century later, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the action of Tyler's book is in the smaller, less public domain of a suburban Baltimore family, where the marriage between Pauline and Michael Anton seems doomed from the start.
Misunderstandings mark even their first encounter, as somber, serious Michael enlists in the Army on a whim because Pauline assumed he already had. He didn't want to say that this spunky, effervescent girl was wrong.
Michael soon returns from the war relatively unscathed and marries Pauline -- how could he not? He knew that "on his death bed, the last, best memory he would cling to would be the sight of Pauline in her red coat, flying down Aliceanna Street to see him off to war."
Fast-forward to Chapter 2, and Pauline is pregnant with their second child. Already there are problems, which Michael calls "the edgy, imperfect, exasperating moments" of their marriage.
And it gets only worse as the years clip by. The Antons face their most harrowing challenge when their troubled oldest daughter, now 18, disappears one day and makes it clear she doesn't want to be found.
It's a testament to Tyler's mastery as a novelist that she can develop her characters so well while skipping through years at a time from one chapter to the next. Tyler manages to give her characters depth and a palpable relationship, and it's painful to see the 30-year marriage dissolve.
At one point, Pauline bemoans the way she's lived her life: "She had married the wrong man just because that was the track she'd been traveling on and she hadn't known how to get off; so she'd gone ahead with it and behaved forever after like someone she wasn't, someone shrewish and difficult."
But the end of the marriage isn't really the main thrust of the book, which also describes the 20 years after the divorce. The novel examines how the Antons seem left behind as a changing, new world revolved around them. Even Michael's neighborhood grocery is shuttered, only to be replaced by the ubiquitous chain store World O' Food.
And when Michael looks back on his days as a newlywed, he can't help but imagine that "all those young marrieds of the war years ... had started out in equal ignorance. He pictured them marching down a city street, as people had on the day he enlisted. Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever -- the last couple left in the amateur's parade."
Still, Michael and Pauline forged a powerful bond during those 30 years of marriage -- a connection that surprises both of them with its pull.
"The Amateur Marriage" is finely crafted, a bittersweet book that will surely satisfy Tyler's many fans.