- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

The skyrocketing divorce rate in America is fodder for news stories, social commentary and comedians. And it is also the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s latest book, “The Amateur Marriage.”

Mrs. Tyler has crafted a novel that captures the eccentricities of generations, of the Old World vs. modernity, of the evolution of a family and a genealogy. It is the tale of how two mismatched people tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to make a life together.

It’s a story of passionate, impetuous courtship, the difficult years of early marriage in the ethnic inner city and later financial security in the suburbs. It’s a story about family problems that don’t change despite evolving backdrops, about what happens when you leave and what happens if you have the courage or desire to return.

Pauline met Michael Anton in his mother’s grocery store in the Polish neighborhood of Baltimore, a pretty girl in a bright red coat, a contrast to a life that was otherwise shades of gray. Michael, caught up with the town’s (and Pauline’s) excitement at the United States’ involvement in World War II, enlists.

Pauline and Michael court via the U.S. Postal Service until an injury sustained in training brings Michael home before he ever leaves the country. A wedding is planned, but there is trouble already: Pauline gets cold feet and must be coaxed down the aisle on her wedding day.

She “says she didn’t know what she was thinking … says all they do is fight … says he never wants to go anyplace and … always so unsocial and … such a different style of person from her, so set in his ways, won’t budge …”

Pauline walks down the aisle that day, but 30 years of marriage later the reader questions if perhaps Pauline should have honored that initial instinct to flee.

But marriage is a choice, love is a choice and compromise (or the refusal to do so) is also a choice.

Through snippets of the early years of family life, we see that the Antons’ problems are not exclusive to them: a husband with chokingly strong ties to his mother, a wife chronically unsatisfied with her standard of living, two opposite temperaments that are decidedly unsuited. Michael is steady, carefully plodding through life. Pauline is passionate, spontaneous, spirited.

But the curse of the parents’ generations will be visited upon their children. In the midst of this battleground named home, the oldest daughter, Lindy, is slipping away. It’s all rather textbook, given the social upheaval of the Sixties. Lindy befriends “the wrong crowd,” begins making poor marks, breaks curfew — all under her parents’ noses. Then one night she leaves and simply doesn’t return.

The Antons spend years unsuccessfully searching for her, the guilt of Lindy’s departure weighing upon the shoulders of not only Pauline and Michael, but also their children, George and Karen. Abandonment. If only …

Years later they are summoned by Lindy’s landlord to collect a grandchild who they never knew even existed (named Pagan of all monikers) and they depart to San Francisco, eager to unite with their child. But once more Lindy has escaped them.

They return home with their 3-year-old grandson. Instead of enjoying their golden years, they once again experience parent-teacher conferences and baseball practices as they raise Lindy’s child for her.

And then it happens: On the evening of their celebration of their 30th anniversary, Pauline tells Michael to leave. And he does.

In a chapter appropriately titled “Killing the frog by degrees,” Pauline explodes, “‘If you’re so miserable, leave! If I make you so unhappy. If your life is such a torment. Go! What are you waiting for?’ He [Michael] looked at her a moment longer, and then he snatched his car keys from the bureau and turned on his heel and walked out.”

Just like current statistics tell us it should happen, it does: Pauline remains single, while Michael remarries. Michael reinvents his life by marrying Anna Grant, the other girl in the grocery store that day (the one he always suspected was a better match). Pagan grows up, finishes school and gets married.

And then Lindy comes home.

It’s an awkward assimilation into the family once again, and it’s clear that Lindy’s loyalties and curiosities are directed towards her son, not her own family that she left decades ago. “‘Just us,’ Mom would say, ‘just the five of us,’ like that was something to be desired, and I’ll never forget how claustrophobic that made me feel. Just the five of us in this wretched, tangled knot, inward-turned, stunted, like a trapped fox chewing its own leg off,” Lindy recalls.

Mrs. Tyler has written a novel that chronicles the dysfunctional family moderately well. Sometime during the last 50 years, the American family unit fell apart. “The Amateur Marriage” acts as a scrapbook of that decline, a picture of angry words here, another of a joyous party there. When you assemble the scrapbook, you can see that there were more bad times than good, angry words spoken that can’t be unsaid.

But there are too many empty pages. Mrs. Tyler covers too much ground and too much time. Her fast-forward story-telling narrative leaves many fill-in-the-blank years, and when Michael leaves, we’re left wondering if that was really all it took. (Or perhaps we are reminded that that is all it takes.) Michael and Pauline are painted intricately, but the rest of the characters are mere etchings of personalities, motives and desires.

The tale holds the promise of ringing painfully true, but merely skims the surface of so much heartache. Lindy remains the greatest mystery of all, because Mrs. Tyler offers little insight into who she is or why she left. We’re merely left to sort through the damage she left behind. And there are significant plot developments thrown in almost as an afterthought.

But Anne Tyler’s eloquence is the guiding force that compels us to finish the novel. She describes a broken heart so well. In the words of Pauline:

“Now she thought she’d been wrong to picture their marriage as a tree. What it felt like, instead, was something being spilled — something torn and bleeding and spilling out of its borders, like a sloppily fried egg.”

Stephanie Taylor is letters editor at The Washington Times.

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