For me, The Amateur Marriage represents the sixth time I have read one of Anne Tyler’s novels. On the surface it’s the story of Michael and Pauline. They meet by chance in 1941 in Anton’s, the grocery store run by Michael’s family. 1941, perhaps incidentally, is the year Anne Tyler was born.
There was a war to be fought, of course, a war that affected both of their lives. But there’s a marriage, and a child, a daughter named Lindy. Others follow, a boy and another girl. For Michael and Pauline, life progresses, as does their marriage. But twists and turns take them to places they have never visited before.
As with other novels by Anne Tyler, there is an obvious and consistent linearity about its time. A reviewer has to be careful with detail, because what happens to this novel’s characters is a large part of how it happens, and thus an integral part of the book’s rationale. To some extent, a listing of the plot, event by event, would render a reading unnecessary. But after a handful of Anne Tyler’s books, I am now convinced there is much more going on in them than mere story-telling.
In the past I have found her characters shallow, rather self-obsessed, selfish, perhaps. They are people who have lives outside the family, but people who seem pre-occupied with the familiar and seem rarely to confront ideas or experience outside its apparently defining, but only sometimes reassuring confines.
And perhaps that’s the point. It is an American dream, a libertarian ideal under a microscope. It is analysed, picked apart, sometimes reconstructed. The characters are affected by political, social, economic and cultural change. Their lives are materially transformed by the same forces that lay waste and occasionally reinvent their home town, Baltimore. But they, themselves, are mere recipients of these effects, appearing to play no part in their instigation or, it seems, their analysis. They live their lives. They are pushed around by experience, jostled by life, reflect little, internalise everything, only occasionally recognising life’s potential to reform. Time thus moves on. Inevitability looms unexpectedly.
It is not a criticism of Anne Tyler, her novel or its characters to proffer the opinion that everything seems to happen in an intellectual wasteland. People go to college, do law degrees, become involved with good causes, procreate, but moments of reflection seem to be confined to what breed of dog might not provoke allergy. Perhaps that’s the point. Such things are the stuff of life. Time goes on.