The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

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Many novels and films end in marriage, the apotheosis of a tumultuous and passionate love affair stretched over a couple of hundred pages. Jane Austen springs to mind here. Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage (2004), however, picks up where others leave off. Her pellucid prose paints a picture of ordinary people trying to figure out how to live with and love one another over a thirty-year period. It is not a tense narrative, saturated with high drama. It is a story that is devastating because its married protagonists, Pauline and Michael, make misery their quotidian experience.

Tyler’s narrator inhabits her protagonists’ points of view, providing first-hand insight into the quagmire of their relationship. One passage strikingly captures the conflict that can emerge after initial infatuation has faded: ‘Pauline believed that marriage was an interweaving of souls, while Michael viewed it as two people travelling side by side but separately. “What are you thinking about?”…She customarily opened his mail. She never failed to ask whom he’d been talking to on the phone. Even her eternal guess-whats (“Guess what, Michael… No seriously, guess…Come on. Just take a guess…Wrong. Guess again…) seemed to him a form of intrusion. How could two people so unlike ever hope to interweave? Which only proved, Michael felt, that his view of marriage was the right one.’

This appears early on, in the younger years of their marriage. Life rolls on and many years later Michael continues to despair about the state of his relationship, wondering if ‘other people’s marriages were not so ragged and uneven’. Michael often compares his marriage to the appearances of others, but is unable – or refuses – to understand that he is comparing himself to contrived images, fronts put on for the neighbours, much like his own. Pauline, for example, is proud of a family photograph because everyone was ‘dressed in Sunday best, neatly combed, scrubbed and shiny’ – there is no hint here of the marital war that eventually tears her family apart.

Like Richard Yates, who writes in similarly crisp prose, Tyler lets her characters live in the familiar safety of misery without interjecting her authorial judgement. This has the affect of pointing the finger at the reader. Were she to moralise, then we would easily join in with judging her characters’ faults. Instead, sentences like ‘He [Michael] wished he had inhabited more of his life, used it better, filled it fuller’ linger.

The novel ends with Michael, aged eighty, returning to the home he had shared with Pauline. On his journey there he reminisces about her humour and their warm moments. He hopes that she is still alive, so she could welcome him, validate him, perhaps return to him. He imagines strolling toward their lawn, where she fills a bird feeder; he imagines her excitedly asking ‘Is it you?’. But there is, of course, no grand reunion, and all we are left with is the devastating sense of lost chances.