Married to it

Their romance was the stuff of wartime dreams. He was a hardworking boy from the neighborhood. She was a lively young woman from a good family. They met one crisp day when her gaggle of friends dragged her into Anton’s Grocery. She had a cut, and he was there to patch her up, wipe the blood away. It was love at first sight, everyone said, love made eternal by the war. He enlisted in a rush of patriotism, but, unlike so many men, he came home—with a wound and a question. Would she marry him? She said yes. How could she not? They would live happily ever after.

How can a union forged of such romantic circumstances become so much drudgery? That is the question plaguing Anne Tyler’s heartbreaking new novel, The Amateur Marriage, which evokes the entire sweep of Michael and Pauline Anton’s marriage with uncommon delicacy and dignity. There are children to feed and in-laws to appease. One child runs away. The other two are oddly self-sufficient. Anniversaries come and go. Business gets better, then worse and then better again. At middle age, Michael and Pauline raise their heads from the grindstone and wonder where the time went.

Unlike many writers treading over similar ground, Tyler does not sneer at domestic heartache, nor does she infuse it with gothic doom. Instead, she depicts Michael and Pauline’s marriage with simple realism, exposing the moments of doubt and showing how easy it is to smooth over them. Michael and Pauline married because they were in love. They stay together, however, because of an illusion. Domestic life, or so they thought, would redeem their flaws. A comfortable house and a nice family would sand their worries down, varnish their surfaces shiny with happiness.

To read The Amateur Marriage is to watch this myth slowly, ineluctably be wiped away and replaced with a truth much darker and more difficult to grasp. Marriage is not only work, but also too much work sometimes. As we march through the years with Michael and Pauline, we seesaw between hope and despair. On the peak of happy times, the horizon is broad and big enough for the both of them. In the trough of a bad moment, though, the wave of doubt that rises up seems sure to sink their ship.

But imagine the worst, and it will not happen. That seems to be the way Pauline deals with her doubt. Michael, however, simmers on its flame. Throughout The Amateur Marriage, Tyler toggles between these two stubborn but good-hearted individuals, showing how disconnections keep them together. The loss of one child simultaneously indicts their marriage and makes it stronger. A move to the suburbs buys them more space but opens up the question of what they plan to do with it.

With remarkable simplicity, The Amateur Marriage gives us the feeling of being inside Michael and Pauline’s marriage. We touch its knobby textures, pull up a chair at their annual Labor Day barbecue—such modest festivity a reminder of how marriage can anesthetize us from the loss of our big dreams. Unlike Tyler’s prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, this is not a story of extraordinary drama, but one of everyday drama. Just two people fumbling through life, amateurs in a game you must occasionally fail at first to become a pro.