Amateur Marriage (Tyler)

The Amateur Marriage
Anne Tyler, 2004
Random House
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400042982

From the inimitable Anne Tyler, a rich and compelling novel about a mismatched marriage—and its consequences, spanning three generations.

They seemed like the perfect couple—young, good-looking, made for each other. The moment Pauline, a stranger to the Polish Eastern Avenue neighborhood of Baltimore (though she lived only twenty minutes away), walked into his mother’s grocery store, Michael was smitten. And in the heat of World War II fervor, they are propelled into a hasty wedding. But they never should have married.

Pauline, impulsive, impractical, tumbles hit-or-miss through life; Michael, plodding, cautious, judgmental, proceeds deliberately. While other young marrieds, equally ignorant at the start, seemed to grow more seasoned, Pauline and Michael remain amateurs. In time their foolish quarrels take their toll. Even when they find themselves, almost thirty years later, loving, instant parents to a little grandson named Pagan, whom they rescue from Haight-Ashbury, they still cannot bridge their deep-rooted differences. Flighty Pauline clings to the notion that the rifts can always be patched. To the unyielding Michael, they become unbearable.

From the sound of the cash register in the old grocery to the counterculture jargon of the sixties, from the miniskirts to the multilayered apparel of later years, Anne Tyler captures the evocative nuances of everyday life during these decades with such telling precision that every page brings smiles of recognition. Throughout, as each of the competing voices bears witness, we are drawn ever more fully into the complex entanglements of family life in this wise, embracing, and deeply perceptive novel. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 25, 1941
Where—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Education—B.A., Duke University
Awards—Pulitzer Prize (see below)
Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland

Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic. She has published 20 novels, the best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988). All three were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the third won it.

She has also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012 she was awarded The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. She is recognized for her fully developed characters, her "brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail" (New York Times), and her "rigorous and artful style" and "astute and open language" (also, New York Times). While many of her characters have been described as quirky or eccentric, she has managed to make them seem real through skillfully fleshing out their inner lives in great depth.

Her subject in all her novels has been the American family and marriage: the boredom and exasperating irritants endured by partners, children, siblings, parents; the desire for freedom pulling against the tethers of attachments and conflicted love; the evolution over time of familial love and sense of duty. Tyler celebrates unremarkable Americans and the ordinary details of their everyday lives. Because of her style and subject matter, she has been compared to John Updike, Jane Austen, and Eudora Welty, among others.

The eldest of four children, she was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father, Lloyd Parry Tyler, was an industrial chemist and her mother, Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker. Both her parents were Quakers who were very active with social causes in the Midwest and the South.  Her family lived in a succession of Quaker communities in the South until they settled in 1948 in a Quaker commune in Celo, in the mountains of North Carolina near Burnsville.

The Celo Community settlement was founded by conscientious objectors and members of the liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends, with community labor needs shared by the residents. Tyler lived there from age 7 through 11 and helped her parents and others with caring for livestock and organic farming. While she did not attend formal public school in Celo, lessons were taught in art, carpentry, and cooking in homes and in other subjects in a tiny school house. Her early informal training was supplemented by correspondence school.

Her first memory of her own creative story-telling was of crawling under the bed covers at age 3 and "telling myself stories in order to get to sleep at night." Her first book at age 7 was a collection of drawings and stories about "lucky girls...who got to go west in covered wagons." Her favorite book as a child was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. Tyler acknowledges that this book, which she read many times during this period of limited access to books, had a profound influence on her, showing how the years flowed by, people altered, and nothing could ever stay the same."

This early perception of changes over time is a theme that reappears in many of her novels decades later, just as The Little House itself appears in her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler also describes reading Little Women 22 times as a child. When the Tyler family left Celo after four years to move to Raleigh, NC, 11-year-old Anne had never attended public school and never used a telephone. This unorthodox upbringing enabled her to view "the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise."

Raleigh, North Carolina
It also meant that Tyler felt herself to be an outsider in the public schools she attended in Raleigh, a feeling that has followed her most of her life. She believes that this sense of being an outsider has contributed to her becoming a writer:

I believe that any kind of setting-apart situation will do [to become a writer]. In my case, it was emerging from the commune…and trying to fit into the outside world.

Despite her lack of public schooling prior to age 11, Anne entered school academically well ahead of most of her classmates in Raleigh. With access now to libraries, she discovered Eudora Welty, Gabriel García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Welty remains one of her favorite writers, and she credits Welty with showing her that books could be about the everyday details of life, not just about major events.

During her years at N. B. Broughton High School in Raleigh, she was inspired and encouraged by a remarkable English teacher, Phyllis Peacock. Peacock had previously taught the writer Reynolds Price, under whom Tyler would later study at Duke University. She would also later teach the writer Armistead Maupin. Seven years after high school, Tyler would dedicate her first published novel to "Mrs. Peacock, for everything you’ve done."

Tyler won a full scholarship to Duke University, which her parents urged her to go accept it because they also needed money for the education of her three younger brothers. At Duke, Tyler enrolled in Reynolds Price's first creative writing class, which also included a future poet, Fred Chappell. Price was most impressed with the sixteen-year-old Tyler, describing her as "frighteningly mature for 16," "wide-eyed," and "an outsider." Years later Price would describe Tyler as "one of the best novelists alive in the world,… who was almost as good a writer at 16 as she is now."

While an undergraduate, Tyler published her short story "Laura" in the Duke literary journal Archive, for which she won the newly created Anne Flexner award for creative writing. She wrote many short stories, one of which impressed Reynolds Price so that he later stated that it was the "most finished, most accomplished short story I have ever received from an undergraduate in my thirty years of teaching." "The Saints in Caesar’s Household" was published in Archive also and won her a second Anne Flexner award. This short story led to her meeting Diarmuid Russell, to whom Price had sent it with kudos. Russell, who was an agent for both Reynolds Price and for Tyler’s "crowning influence" Eudora Welty, later became Tyler’s agent.

Tyler majored in Russian Literature at Duke—not English—and graduated in 1961, at age 19, having been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. With her Russian Literature background she received a fellowship to graduate school in Slavic Studies at Columbia University although she left after a year without her master's degree. She returned to Duke where she got a job in the library as a Russian bibliographer. It was there that she met Taghi Modarressi, a resident in child psychiatry in Duke Medical School and a writer himself, and they were married a year later (1963).

Early writing
While working at the Duke library—before and after marrying Modarressi—Tyler continued to write short stories, which appeared in The New Yoker, Saturday Evening Post, and Harpers. She also started work on her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, eventually published 1964, followed by The Tin Can Tree in 1965. Years later she disowned both of these novels, as well as many of the short stories she wrote during this period, going so far as to say she "would like to burn them." She feels that most of this early work suffers from the lack of thorough character development and her failure to rework material repeatedly.

After the birth of two children (1965 and 1967), followed by a move from Montreal, Canada, to Baltimore in the U.S., Tyler had little time or energy for writing. She published nothing from 1965 to 1970. By 1970, however, she began writing again and published three more novels by 1974—A Slipping-Down Life, The Clock Winder, and Celestial Navigation. In her own opinion, her writing improved considerably during this period; with her children entering school, she was able to devote more time—and focus more intensely—than at any time since her undergraduate days.

National recognition
With Celestial Navigation, Tyler began to get wider recognition. Morgan's Passing (1980) won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction and was nominated for both the American Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

With her next novel (her ninth), Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler truly arrived as a recognized artist in the literary world. (She considers Homesick her best work.) Her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1985. It was also made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. The popularity of this well-received film further increased the growing public awareness of her work. Her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 and was Time magazine’s "Book of the Year." It was adapted into a 1994 TV movie, as eventually were four other of her novels.

Since her Pulitzer Prize with Breathing Lessons, Tyler has written 9 more novels, all of favorably reviewed, many Book of the Month Club Main Selections and New York Times Bestsellers.

In Tyler’s own words, the characters are the driving forces behind the stories and the starting point for her writing:

I do make a point of writing down every imaginable facet of my characters before I begin a book, trying to get to know them so I can figure out how they’ll react in any situation…..My reason for writing now is to live lives other than my own, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper….till I reach the center of those lives.

The magic of her novels starts with her ability to create those characters in the reader’s mind through the use of remarkably realistic details. The late Canadian author Carol Shields, writing about Tyler's characters, observes:

Tyler has always put her characters to work. Their often humble or eccentric occupations, carefully observed and threaded with humor, are tightly sewn to the other parts of their lives, offering them the mixed benefit of tedium and consolation, as well as a lighted stage for the unfolding of their dramatic selves. She also allows her men and women an opportunity for redemption.

Tyler has clearly spelled out the importance of her characters to her stories: "As far as I’m concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too."

Stylistically, Tyler's writing is difficult to categorize or label. Novelist Cathleen Schine describes how her "style without a style" manages to pull the reader into the story:

So rigorous and artful is the style without a style, so measured and delicate is each observation, so complex is the structure and so astute and open the language, that the reader can relax, feel secure in the narrative and experience the work as something real and natural.

The San Francisco Chronicle made a similar point: "One does not so much read a Tyler novel as visit it.

While Tyler herself does not like to think of her novels in terms of themes, numerous reviewers and scholars have noted the importance of family and marriage relationships to her characters and stories. Reviewing Noah's Compass, New York Times' Mitchiko Kakutani noted that

The central concern of most of this author’s characters has always been their need to define themselves in terms of family—the degree to which they see themselves as creatures shaped by genetics, childhood memories and parental and spousal expectations, and the degree to which they are driven to embrace independent identities of their own.

Tyler is not without her critics. The most common criticism is that her works are "sentimental," "sweet," and "charming and cosy." Even Kakutani has also occasionally bemoaned a "cloying cuteness," noting that "her novels—with their eccentric heroes, their homespun details, their improbable, often heartwarming plots—have often flirted with cuteness." In her own defense, Tyler has said,

For one thing I think it is sort of true. I would say piss and vinegar for [Philip] Roth and for me milk and cookies. I can’t deny it…. [However] there’s more edge under some of my soft language than people realize.

Also, because almost all of Tyler’s work covers the same territory—family and marriage relationships—and are located in the same setting, she has come under criticism for being repetitive and formulaic.

Tyler’s advice to beginning writers:

They should run out and buy the works of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who studied the meaning of gesture in personal interactions. I have cause to think about Erving Goffman nearly every day of my life, every time I see people do something unconscious that reveals more than they’ll ever know about their interiors. Aren’t human beings intriguing? I could go on writing about them forever."

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/10/2015.)

Book Reviews
Although acquaintances like to think of them as a perfect couple, Pauline and Michael are constantly bickering, sulking and fighting at home. And by cutting back and forth among the viewpoints of different characters, Ms. Tyler is able to provide a kaleidoscopic view of their marriage, and the ripple effect that their contentious relationship has on their ode to the complexities of familial love, the centripetal and centrifugal forces that keep families together and send their members flying apart, the supremely ordinary pleasures and frustrations of middle-class American life.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

In new novel The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler once again displays the qualities of wisdom, insightful writing and compassion that have made the Baltimore resident the most-admired serious yet popular writer working today. One is never embarrassed to be seen reading a Tyler novel.
Deidre Donahue - USA Today

This novel of marital unhappiness focuses on a couple whose fraught relationship spans sixty years. In the early days of the Second World War, Michael and Pauline find themselves drawn together despite misgivings and bitter fights. The resulting marriage is a thirty-year clash between her impulsiveness and self-absorption and his taciturnity and barely suppressed rage. Tyler examines their acrimonious bond, which persists even after their eventual divorce, with a keen eye for the minor differences that suddenly widen into chasms. In order to illuminate every facet of the couple’s interactions and personalities, the story is told from several points of view: those of Michael and Pauline and two of their three children. Although Tyler’s prose occasionally slips into banality, she never falters in creating vivid characters whose weaknesses are both credible and compelling.
The New Yorker

Because Tyler writes with scrupulous accuracy about muddled, unglamorous suburbanites, it is easy to underestimate her as a sort of Pyrex realist. Yes, Tyler intuitively understands the middle class's Norman Rockwell ideal, but she doesn't share it; rather, she has a masterful ability to make it bleed. Her latest novel delineates, in careful strokes, the 30-year marriage of Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay, and its dissolution. In December 1941 in St. Cassians, a mainly Eastern European conclave in Baltimore, 20-year-old Michael meets Pauline and is immediately smitten. They marry after Michael is discharged from the army, but their temperaments don't mix. For Michael, self-control is the greatest of virtues; for Pauline, expression is what makes us human. She is compulsively friendly, a bad hider of emotions, selfish in her generosity ("my homeless man") and generous in her selfishness. At Pauline's urging, the two move to the suburbs, where they raise three children, George, Karen and Lindy. Lindy runs away in 1960 and never comes back-although in 1968, Pauline and Michael retrieve Pagan, Lindy's three-year-old, from her San Francisco landlady while Lindy detoxes in a rehab community that her parents aren't allowed to enter. Michael and Pauline got married at a time when the common wisdom, expressed by Pauline's mother, was that "marriages were like fruit trees.... Those trees with different kinds of branches grafted onto the trunks. After a time, they meld, they grow together, and... if you tried to separate them you would cause a fatal wound." They live into an era in which the accumulated incompatibilities of marriage end, logically, in divorce. For Michael, who leaves Pauline on their 30th anniversary, divorce is redemption. For Pauline, the divorce is, at first, a tragedy; gradually, separation becomes a habit. A lesser novelist would take moral sides, using this story to make a didactic point. Tyler is much more concerned with the fine art of human survival in changing circumstances. The range and power of this novel should not only please Tyler's immense readership but also awaken us to the collective excellency of her career.
Publishers Weekly

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Tyler makes a strong return with this memorable exploration of personal identity within middle-class family life. Set in the author's favorite locale of Baltimore and its environs, the novel centers on the Antons, a sympathetic but mismatched couple who endure years of unhappy wedlock. The two appear well suited when they meet and fall in love at the beginning of World War II. Outgoing, enthusiastic Pauline, eager to embrace her husband's Polish American traditions, seems the perfect complement to reserved and practical Michael. Raising three children while building the family grocery business initially brings mutual satisfactions; however, neither their increasing prosperity nor a comfortable suburban home can lessen growing tensions, which become unbearable when the couple must face the consequences of a rebellious daughter's disappearance. Unlike the Ryans of Tyler's Breathing Lessons, the Antons have not forged marital bonds strong enough to endure. Their sad story, as dark and ironic as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, is leavened by Tyler's trademark comic details, narrated with characteristic dry and witty understatement. This rewarding work is recommended for most public libraries. —Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., Falls Church, VA.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. What is noticeable about the narrative voice in the first chapter? At the end of the chapter the narrator states, "They were such a perfect couple. They were taking their very first steps on the amazing journey of marriage, and wonderful adventures were about to unfold in front of them" (p. 34). Whose voice is this meant to be? Why is the chapter called "Common Knowledge"?

2. How does the presence of Mrs. Anton affect Michael and Pauline’s marriage? What has made Mrs. Anton so dependent on her son? Is Michael unfair to Pauline in expecting her to care for his mother? Who is Michael more obligated to—his mother or his wife?

3. How is Pauline’s flirtation with Alex Barrow related to the letters she sent Michael while he was away in the army (pp. 54–55)? What does the reader learn about her character in the chapter called "The Anxiety Committee"? Would someone like Alex Barrow have been a better choice for Pauline? What goes through her mind as she sits downstairs alone? Why does she decide not to go out and meet him that night?

4. In its early chapters, The Amateur Marriage gives readers a view of life in an ethnic working-class neighborhood in Baltimore. Later, the setting shifts to a newly built suburb, where the family gradually moves into the middle class. What are the effects of this shift on the family? How does Anton’s experience reflect a change in American family life in the postwar decades?

5. Michael thinks of Pauline as "a frantic, impossible woman, so unstable, even in good moods, with her exultant voice and glittery eyes, her dangerous excitement" (p. 167). Meanwhile Pauline "chafed daily at...his rigidity, his caution, his literal-mindedness...his reluctance to spend money, his suspicion of anything unfamiliar, his tendency to pass judgment...[and] his magical ability to make her seem hysterical" (p. 75). Does the narrative present us with a more positive view of Michael or of Pauline? Who is the more sympathetic character?

6. Pauline enters Michael’s life in a vivid red coat, bleeding because she jumped impulsively from a streetcar to join a parade (pp. 3–5). Does the report of her death in a car accident years later (pp. 275–76) imply that Pauline hasn’t changed? Why does Tyler frame Pauline’s presence in the novel with two accidents?

7. As he posed in the photography studio for a fifteenth-anniversary portrait with Pauline, Michael remembers thinking, "Who was this woman? What did she have to do with him? How could they be expected to share a house, rear children together, combine their separate lives for all time? The knob of her shoulder pressing into his armpit had felt like an inanimate object" (p. 137). The photograph shows “Mr. and Mrs. Perfectly Fine.... An advertisement for marriage” (p. 137). Are these thoughts an indication that, for Michael at least, the marriage is doomed? How does this photograph relate to the double portrait described on p. 172? What distinction is Tyler making between the public and private aspects of married life?

8. Reflecting on his marriage, Michael imagines that "all those young marrieds of the war years" have grown "wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever—the last couple left in the amateurs' parade" (p. 168). He felt they were "more like brother and sister than husband and wife. This constant elbowing and competing, jockeying for position, glorying in I-told-you-so" (p. 168). How common are the problems that Michael and Pauline experience in their relationship? Is Michael correct in thinking that he and Pauline are unusual in their long-standing "amateur marriage"?

9. Do Michael and Pauline handle their trip to San Francisco well or badly? Why do they take Pagan home without pursuing their attempt to bring Lindy home as well? Why do they never go back and try again? Does the episode suggest that they are both fundamentally passive and ineffectual people? Or does it suggest, on the other hand, that they are realistic and know how to protect themselves from grief?

10. How is the narrative organized, and how do the chapters handle the flow of time? What is achieved in the structure that Tyler has chosen for this novel? Does the narrative point of view tend to illuminate the thoughts of all characters equally? If not, into which characters are we are given more insight and access?

11. In what ways does Tyler distinguish herself from other contemporary novelists you have read? Look closely at a few favorite passages and discuss how she achieves the effects of style, humor, and insight that make her work so enjoyable.

12. "Time," Anne Tyler has said, "has always been a central obsession of mine—what it does to people, how it can constitute a plot all on its own." Does Michael’s decision to leave the marriage after 30 years, and his careful courtship of Anna, reveal a desire to redeem lost time? How is his relationship with Anna different from his first marriage? Why doesn’t Pauline remarry?

13. How surprising is the reappearance of Lindy? Why has Lindy never tried to contact Pagan before this? Is her return to the story satisfying or not?

14. To Lindy, the family was like "an animal caught in a trap.... Just the five of us in this wretched, tangled knot, inward-turned, stunted, like a trapped fox chewing its own leg off" (p. 300). Does Tyler suggest that such a feeling is natural when people feel alienated from their families or misunderstood by them? What might Michael and Pauline have done differently? Is their helplessness in the face of Lindy’s unhappiness their own fault, or does the novel suggest that there is a limit to what parents can feel responsible for?

15. How are George and Karen affected in their development by the disappearance of Lindy and by their parents’ troubled marriage? Does Tyler suggest that children become themselves in spite of, or in reaction to, family stresses?

16. Anne Tyler has said, "My fondest hope for any of my novels is that readers will feel, after finishing it, that for a while they have actually stepped inside another person’s life and come to feel related to that person." Does The Amateur Marriage achieve this goal?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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