9 February 2012

Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)

Although born (of Quaker parents) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Anne Tyler (1941– ) was brought up and educated in North Carolina and later moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where – with the exception of her first four novels – her books are set. She considers Baltimore to be a Southern city, as does Paul Binding, whose Separate Country: A Literary Journey through the American South (London: Paddington Press, 1979) contains a chapter on Tyler, and notes that her preoccupation with 'the delineation of individuals and spheres in which they find themselves' makes her a kind of urban sister to Southern writers such as Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty (a seminal influence).

The Amateur Marriage is her 16th novel and is elliptical: it spans sixty years, from Pearl Harbor Day in 1941 through to after 9/11, in ten chapters, with irregular gaps in the time between them. Although framed between two major political events, politics is not a major motivating factor of the characters, and Michael seems to join the army more for personal reasons, to impress Pauline, than for patriotic ones. The fact that Michael comes from a Polish Catholic background and Pauline from an Amecican Protestant one is not a source of conflict: but the fact that they have conflicting personalities (Pauline extroverted, impulsive, and generous; Michael introverted, cautious, and thrifty) is of major importance.

Michael and Pauline marry, live with his mother over her local grocery business in the Polish district and bring up three children – Lindy, George and Karen. George and Karen are conventional types who grow up to have professional jobs, but Lindy is more influenced by cultural factors outside the home environment, loves Jack Kerouac (here Kerook) and Albert Camus (here Albert Caymus); she offends her parent by quoting some 'Language' from Ginsberg's Howl; and she leaves home definitively, getting messed up on drugs in the San Francisco drug scene.

Although they go to San Francisco to bring Lindy back after some years of absence, they only bring back her son Pagan, whom they bring up, but mainly separately, as they've been 'killing a frog by degrees', and Michael walks out on Pauline and later re-marries. Tyler's handling of the slow-budding relationship between Michael and Anna is almost painful to read and you want to give both of them a kick in the pants to spur them on: she can do young love and mature love so well.

She can also do funny. At 64 Pauline goes on an evening dinner date with Dun Osgood, whose wife has only been dead four months, and all he can talk about is the fun he had with her (mentioning her name fifteen times in nine pages), but through the 'vast grey fog' of the boredom Pauline finds amusement. Dun leaves her house after a cup of cocoa because nine o'clock in the evening is late for him.

Tyler does hate well too. Lindy eventually turns up in Baltimore and is married and living in North Carolina, but no one really knows why she left, nor how she could inflict such violence on the family. There are family reunions once or twice a year, and Michael, who experienced his first marriage as hell, asks if Lindy remembers the family trips. Lindy says she'll never forget the claustrophobia: 'Just the five of us in this wretched, tangled knot, inward-turned, stunted, like a trapped fox chewing its own leg off'.

The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

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