(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

Anne Tyler has been writing about dysfunctional marriages and families since her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964). In The Amateur Marriage, her sixteenth novel, Tyler further interrogates the mechanisms—both external and internal—which bind and break marriages and families. Unlike her previous works, however, The Amateur Marriagesuggests that historical events and moods can create situations that human psychology cannot always accurately interpret. This shifting of some responsibility for a character's actions toward a peripheral source marks a departure for Tyler, whose previous works tended to be almost ahistorical in their close examination of family dynamics. Tyler traces Michael and Pauline Anton's relationship from its inception during the onset of World War II through multiple upheavals until Pauline's death, many years after their divorce, and Michael's subsequent remarriage. This family chronicle narrative also allows Tyler to illustrate the effects of previous generations upon those who follow. The Amateur Marriagesuggests that relationships are founded on whim, encouraged by lethargy, but, remarkably, endure despite the effects of historical upheavals, mismatched partners, family tragedy, and even divorce.

Unlike other Tyler vehicles such as The Accidental Tourist (1985) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons (1988), where characters tend to react to each other more than historical circumstance, Tyler's main characters in The Amateur Marriage, Pauline and Michael, depend on a historical moment as a catalyst for the start of their rocky relationship. Within the patriotic métier of early 1940's America, Michael feels compelled to enlist in the armed forces, against his own—and his widowed mother's—better judgment, and also enters into a quick marriage to the woman he meets briefly before his enlistment.

Tyler's use of the community as the third-person omniscient narrator for the opening chapter of the novel contributes to this effect. The entire close-knit, ethnic neighborhood encourages and supports Pauline and Michael's marriage and its wartime romanticism. Yet Tyler also showcases the inherent problems in such an arrangement. Michael enlists in the Army because Pauline thinks that all men should enlist. Pauline waits for him, a complete stranger, because it is the romantic thing to do. When Michael is injured in a friendly-fire incident during training, the community expects them to get married. Their differences, however, are apparent before their wedding: Pauline is talkative, sociable, manipulative, and given to the romantic ideal. Michael, however, is practical, quiet, and emotionally restrained. As their daughter Lindy tells Michael later: “You were ice and she was glass.”

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Pauline and Michael have three children rather quickly—Linnet (Lindy), George, and Karen. The couple manages to maintain their marriage through the early years of their children's growth, a time marked also by the expansion of Michael's business from a downtown, community-based grocery to a more profitable upscale supermarket, his one business exemplifying a cultural phenomenon of the postwar period. As Tyler depicts the changes within the Anton family, she also adeptly shows the changing face of downtown Baltimore—from the supportive, ethnically cohesive groupings preceding the war to the materialistic flight of a younger generation from downtown toward a suburban paradise with larger houses, back yards, and superior profit margins. Even though Michael does not seem that interested in bettering his business, he listens to Pauline's constant gripe and eventually opens a highly successful gourmet grocery which matches the emerging demographic in the suburbs.

Throughout this segue from the couple's first years to their subsequent time with children, Tyler spends a great deal of time with small issues that develop into a larger argument—the birthday that did not get properly celebrated, the repetitious harangues of Michael's aging mother who lives with them until her death, and Michael and Pauline's inevitable verbal and interpersonal disparities. Tyler is at her best when she focuses on these concrete signs of deeply felt issues, such as Pauline's near-affair with a local divorcé. Prompted by some flirtatious banter with a neighborhood man, Pauline has to...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)