This is a throwback book review. I’ve read Anne Tyler’s sixteenth novel, The Amateur Marriage, way back in 2013 and posted this review on my now defunct personal blog. Published in 2004, The Amateur Marriage was for me the last of the great Anne Tyler books as the three that followed it were somehow inferior with respect to plot development and characterization. That was until last February’s publication of A Spool of Blue Thread, a novel that echoes the greatness of her Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant. Earlier this weekend, I went through my writings, found this, realized that my views on marriage have somehow changed, and rewrote this review accordingly.
Of all the human institutions that have survived wars and upheavals, marriage may arguably be the often misunderstood inasmuch as it is the most subscribed. Of course this is coming from somebody whose immature view of marriage consists of sharing bed and closet spaces and observing a consistent weekly routine. I am just kidding. Marriage for me is a sacred institution that perhaps may only be properly preserved and ultimately nourished if the two individuals bound by it by embrace the virtues of unconditional faith, loyalty, and willing surrender.
Though my insights on marriage have positively evolved across the years, I still have qualms about it. These days, my reservations border on my ability to dedicate time for the marriage to grow in view of my need to maintain a wide space for solitary pursuits. If my life’s circumstances were different, perhaps I may have already married some special girl who happens to share my ideas on music, literature, film, travel, dining, interior design, and whatnot. But since my life was constructed differently, I had this sort of unlimited time to observe marriage from the standpoint of an outsider.
Marriage, or specifically marriage involving the unprepared, is the subject of Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage. Among her novels that I’ve read so far, The Amateur Marriage ranks among her most heartbreaking. But typical of Anne Tyler, the sadness she brings to the surface is not that kind which carries with it total despair or hopelessness. Rather, there is always that familiarity or recognition–that yeah, I also occasionally have these low moments and devastating turns in my life, and that understanding–that well, all these are just parts of living and people move on anyhow because this is what people are supposed to do, move on.
The Amateur Marriage unfolds within a sixty-year span from the bombing of Pearl Harbor which prompted US’ involvement to the Great War until the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay were among the young ones caught in the frenzy of war and heroism. Michael enlisted though he was sent immediately back home after a freak accident that rendered him incapable for combat. They hastily married upon Michael’s return though they never should have as they were so different–Pauline was impulsive, impractical, loud yet romantic while Michael was cautious, repressed, somewhat controlling, and very much quiet.
Over the years, Michael and Pauline had three children, moved to the suburbs, and carried on with their overblown fights that were usually sparked by something senseless. Midway through their crumbling marriage, they became instant grandparents to Pagan, the three-year old son of their eldest daughter Lindy, who ran away and was drawn to the hippie life in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the late 1960s. The novel culminated with the return of Lindy, who is now in her 40s, and the reunion of Michael and Pauline’s family, now larger with the respective spouses and grandchildren, most of whom were basically strangers to the turbulences of Michael and Pauline’s marriage.
Reading an Anne Tyler novel on Holy Week has sort of become a little personal tradition though there is certainly nothing biblical about her stories. It is just that once I’ve succumbed to the peculiarities of her characters, there seem to be that gentle invitation to introspect. The introspection though is not spiritual. Instead, I am drawn to have a closer look at the failures individuals commit against themselves and their families. Yet, there is also that acknowledgment of the acts of kindness and fragments of love responsible for the unbreakable bonds among couples, families, and friends across the years.
The Amateur Marriage sheds light on the fragility and perpetual highs and lows of married life. These days, in the face of legal constructs like divorce, it can be surmised that perhaps separation is often more concrete or real than a marriage that stays for all eternity. Why? I guess because staying on with somebody despite and in spite of the imperfections takes superhuman strength and humility and most would rather let go and take the easy way out. Which is why this novel is relevant and a recommended literature for individuals who are either about to get married or trying to understand the nuances of married life.
At the end of The Amateur Marriage, there is no assurance that all will be well with the characters. The magic of reading an Anne Tyler novel is the sense of being part of the home and domestic lives of her characters, hence we hope for the best to soon come to their lives much as we strive to achieve goodness for ourselves.