Sunday, April 06, 2008

Book: The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

This was one of my travel books for the St. Louis trip. I haven't read very much Anne Tyler but I really enjoyed this book.

It's a study of a marriage between two people who never should have gotten married. Pauline is impulsive, fiery, irrational, needy, argumentative, passionate. Michael is more slow and thoughtful, rational, not a risk-taker, not impulsive, a bit boring. She likes to experiment with recipes, he likes his meals plain and simple.

They meet just after Pearl Harbor and Michael goes away to war, with Pauline as his war-time sweetheart. They marry soon after he returns, wounded (by not-so-friendly fire). From the beginning, they argue about nearly everything. Pauline is never satisfied, and extremely bored. Michael is mystified and frustrated by her unhappiness. However, they manage to stay married 30 years, never quite getting the hang of how to get along together.

This is the sort of novel that doesn't really have any plot twists or central events... it just tells the story as it unfolds over a lifetime. It's a portrait, as I said before. A thoughtful one, at that. She makes the point that some marriages mellow, deepen and become more settled as time goes on, and some do not. This one did not, and it became more and more uncomfortable as time went on.
I found myself sympathizing with both Pauline and Michael at different points in the story. Mostly I found Pauline to be pretty hard to take. Finding cause to argue in nearly every situation, demanding, and completely overreacting to the slightest upset... my Virgo couldn't take it. Michael was boring to the extreme, but later on we find a longing for deep connection and a bit of a sympathy for outsiders, which I thought was interesting.

I think both characters were longing for a connection, but they just could not find it with each other. They loved one another, but their ways of being in the world were too different and they could not find the bridge to understanding each other. I thought this was incredibly sad and at points found myself frustrated with both characters as they refused to see the other person's side and to accept each other's intrinsic tendencies. If Pauline had only made an effort to temper her impulses and overreactions, just until Michael could get his bearings in the situation. If Michael could have looked past the initial flurry of upset whenever anything happened, and seen that Pauline longed for excitement of any sort and desperately wanted to have A Life... I don't know, it seems like they could have found a middle path. But they didn't.

Rather than deeply connecting with either character, I found myself feeling as if I were peeking into the window of their lives, glad that I wasn't either one of them. However, with the lovely writing and occasional surprise flashes of fully-rounded character descriptions, this was a very enjoyable book, a type of novel I haven't read in awhile.


Alex said...

Anne Tyler was my favorite author in high school. I have old library editions (complete my mylar covers) of my six favorites -- The Accidental Tourist, A Slipping Down Life, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Earthly Possessions, Searching for Caleb, and Morgan's Passing.

I think she was my first experience with quirky writing... Macon Leary in "AT" is a VERY weird guy. He has all these time saving systems that are just gross. The world her characters live in does not seem real, in a snow globe kind of way... I thought this especially true after watching "The Wire" recently, which is set in gritty, real Baltimore... a far cry from the Baltimore AT writes about.

"AT" is also a story about a marriage in decline. As a reader, this was an early experience for me about not being in the majority... despite it being one of my favorite novels, I never liked which way it went. I had an investment in another direction. It may have had something to do with teenage fears of divorce and not wanting to believe that marriage isn't ideal.

I haven't loved her recent work, although I may try this one. Her career trajectory reminds me a bit of Woody Allen... both brilliant, but at some point they ran out of ideas and started rehashing previous work. I think she ran out of steam with "Breathing Lessons."

Daphne said...

I forgot about Accidental Tourist, which of course I did read and liked. I thought this novel was good, but not great -- however, it was interesting and worth a read.

Kate said...

The only Anne Tyler I've ever read is "AT," and it was so long ago (middle school?) that I don't remember much. But I also didn't think it made that much of an impression on me, either. Though I liked the movie well enough. Bill Hurt and Geena Davis?