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Amateur Marriage (Tyler)

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


Summary
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, 1989; National Book Critics Circle
  Award, 1986; PEN/Faulkner Award, 1983
Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland


Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. This is Anne Tyler's sixteenth novel; she has written eighteen (as of 2010). Her eleventh book, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore. (From the publisher.)

More
Anne Tyler has had a very active imagination all her life. When she was a young girl, she would spend an hour or two after being put to bed every night fantasizing that she was a doctor. She imagined conversations with patients, and pictured their lives as she did so, considering both their illnesses and the intricacies of their backgrounds. She constructed little mental plays around these characters that she would whisper to herself in the dark -- much to the chagrin of her brother, with whom she shared a room. "[H]e used to call out to our parents, 'Anne's whispering again!'" she once told Barnes & Noble.com. As much as she may have vexed her brother, she also believes that these fantasies helped her to develop into the beloved, award-winning novelist she is today.

Tyler's work is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a genuine love of her characters, and a quirky sense of humor. Her public persona is characterized by its own quirks, as well. She refuses to grant face-to-face interviews. She has never publicly read from any of her books. She does not do book signings or tours. All of this has lent a certain mystique to her novels, although Tyler has said that her reluctance to become a public figure status is actually the result of simple shyness, not to mention her desire for her writing to speak for itself. Fortunately, Anne Tyler's work speaks with a clear, fully-realized voice that does not require unnecessary elucidation by the writer.

Tyler published her first novel If Morning Ever Comes in 1964, and that singular voice was already in place. This astute debut that tracks the self-realization of a young man named Ben Joe Hawkins displayed Tyler's characteristic wit and gentle eccentricity right off the bat. Harper's declared the novel "a triumph," and Tyler was on her way to creating an impressive catalog of novels chronicling the every day hopes, fears, dreams, failures, and victories of small-town Americans. Having come of age, herself, in rural North Carolina, Tyler had particular insight into the lives of her characters. Each novel was a little shimmering gem, winning her a devoted following and public accolades that more than compensated for her refusal to appear in public. Her novel Earthly Possessions, the story of a housewife who is taken hostage by a young man during a bank robbery, was released the same year she won an award for "literary excellence and promise of important work to come" from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The book also went on to become a television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff in 1999.

Fame
However, the most well-known adaptation of one of Tyler's novels arrived more than a decade earlier when The Accidental Tourist was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Geena Davis and William Hurt. Consequently, The Accidental Tourist is viewed by some as Tyler's signature novel, covering many of the writer's favorite themes: the push and pull of marriage, the appearance of a romantic eccentric, personal tragedy, and the quest to escape from the drudgery of routine. The Accidental Tourist won the National Book Critics Circle Award and hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list.

Three years later, Tyler received the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, which further explored themes of marriage and self-examination. Despite having won the prestigious Pulitzer, Tyler still refused to allow herself to be drawn into the spotlight. Quietly, contemplatively, she chose to continue publishing a sequence of uniformly fine novels, including Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and The Amateur Marriage.

A more recent novel, Digging to America (2006) reexamines many of her chief obsessions, while also possibly drawing upon a personal triumph—her marriage to Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi—and the tragedy of his death in 1997. The novel follows the relationship between two families, the Iranian Yazdans and the all-American Donaldsons, as they become closer and closer and affect each other deeper and deeper over a succession of years. Digging to America is arguably Tyler's deepest and most profound work to date. It also delivers more of her peculiar brand of humor, which will surely please her longtime fans, thrilled that she continues spinning tales with the trademark attention to character that has distinguished her stories ever since she was a little girl, whispering to herself in the dark. Tyler may have decided to remain in the dark and out of the public eye, but the stories she has to tell have shed more than their share of light on the lives of her readers. (From Barnes & Noble.)



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 children...an 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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