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Book: The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

April 6, 2008

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.

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