Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Amateur Marriage (2004)

If I were inclined in any way towards rankings and making lists (and who's to say I'm not?) I'd put this fairly high among Anne Tyler's novels, after only Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe. It's interesting to watch Tyler working through her various tried and true themes—in the one just before this, Back When We Were Grownups, she went perhaps as far as she's gone in making her loose, freewheeling woman the unblemished hero, and the taciturn, repressed man the rejected object of scorn. Here she very nearly goes to the other extreme: Pauline is familiar as the wacky, uninhibited center of a Baltimore family's gravity, but there's an unpleasant tincture of rage to this round, even as her long-suffering husband Michael is not nearly as suffocating—suffocating, yes, but not nearly as much so—as Tyler's familiar Leary types. In fact, this time around the uninhibited freewheeler is very nearly as suffocating in her own way, as the type generally is. Speaking as more of a Leary myself, it's nice to see Tyler grasping the point. Or maybe I only missed her grasp of it before. There is a tremendous amount of sadness to this story of a long-term marriage that ultimately fails, told from beginning to well past the end. The story of the oldest daughter Lindy, who simply vanishes for nearly 30 years, is particularly shocking, and wrenching. Pauline dies before they ever are reunited, and the reunion itself is shrewdly enough mostly an anticlimax. Even though the mystery of Lindy is solved, it lingers on. This seems to me absolutely true to life, and does nothing to dispel the sadness. In fact, as much as I like the happy ending to Saint Maybe, I think I like the sour ending here even a little more. Again the characters are nicely drawn and as always feel effortlessly distinct and real, like people you've known all your life. The narrative strategy is a good one and nicely executed, dipping into the lives of Pauline and Michael once or twice a decade across their long marriage and its aftermath, moving with a sure hand as its story just enlarges and enlarges. In many ways it's the story of America from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, but never feels pushy about the point. Just another poignant visit with more folks that Anne Tyler knows.

In case it's not at the library.

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