I can’t count exactly how many Anne Tyler books I’ve read, but I’m guessing it’s about eight (I read Breathing Lessons in a college class and then went through a spurt of reading more of her work). I read The Amateur Marriage when it first came out and just re-read it for my book club, and I still believe it is one of Tyler’s best (a couple that have been published in the intervening years just didn’t seem up to snuff to me, including Noah’s Compass).
The heartbreaking and moving The Amateur Marriage spans 50-plus years, from World War II to about 2002, tracking the reverberations that come in the wake of the hasty and ill-chosen marriage of exuberant, volatile Pauline to staid, deliberate Michael Anton. Their three children, rocked by the constant quarrels and uncertainties of their parents’ roller-coaster relationship, struggle to piece together satisfying lives of their own, but they might as well be trying to glue together a vase from a thousand shattered shards.
What makes the novel so powerful and resonant is its utter faithfulness to reality, its unblinking look at the dark corners of family life. It is as absorbing and haunting as some of her other books are dryly humorous and light on their feet, but all with equally richly woven characters.
The prose is beautiful and visceral in its dead-on descriptions of the off-balance manner in which her characters live. When Pauline finds herself justifying lapses in her day’s events to Michael, she “got a feeling like a terrible itch, like a kind of all-over vibration, and she thought that at any moment, she might jump clear out of her skin.” That is echoed later in the book before her oldest, teenage daughter disappears from home, not to be heard from for years: “Lindy had more or less percolated in place — you could practically hear the springs coiled inside her, like a jack-in-the-box.”
The discomfort her characters feel is palpable, a little too disconcertingly realistic. She puts into words that fleeting question that occurs to many “grownups,” who are trying to live day to day with spouses and children and adult responsibilities: How do other people live — are they really happy and successful at life, at parenting, at relationships — or are they just pretending, or hanging on by their fingernails day after day after day?
As Tyler chronicles the passage of time in the Anton family from the war years to the present, from youth to old age and all the tortured years in between, she evokes an indelible tale of three generations who are real, rich and unforgettable. From the first page to the last, which is at once touching and heartbreakingly satisfying, the book is a thoroughly moving masterpiece from an experienced, talented writer, one that lingers in a reader’s consciousness long after the conclusion of that last page.
Rated: Mild. There are just a few uses of mild language and the name of deity, and there are a couple of very mild sexual references. It’s really practically a none.