The Amateur Marriage
This novel has been sitting on my shelf for a while, waiting for my attention and reading. While awaiting my Barnes & Noble order, which contains the books that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into, I picked up this one off of my bookshelf and fulfilled my promise to myself to read it.
Now, I read Back When We Were Grown Ups by Anne Tyler some time ago (goodness, at least 2+ years ago), I wasn’t blown away by that novel. I can recall picking this hardback from the airport bookstore when nothing else seemed appealing and thought I’d give the author another shot at grabbing my interest.
I was able to read this novel in just a short few days. Usually that pace is reserved for the novels that I can’t wait to read.. but, this one grabbed my attention about 80 or so pages in. This story is a tale that takes you from the beginning of a marriage, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), through to the near end of the main character’s life. The Amateur Marriage contains moments that made me gasp aloud for Pauline, its heroine, and laugh aloud for the other main character, her husband, Michael. Pauline and Michael meet, by chance, in a small town near Baltimore. Pauline’s fall from a street car, and subsequent minor head injury, lead her and her girlfriends into Michael’s mother’s small town store. Pauline was an energy that Michael simply did not resist and, after bandaging her wound, he followed her to watch the “parade” of local war enlistees.
Pauline and Michael share a very short-lived courtship, if you will, and Michael is off to serve his country. Pauline, a young woman with a limited ability to live a life of calm and who maintains a flair for the dramatic, writes Michael in “boot camp.” As the days drag on, her youthful age and restless spirit change the tone of her letters to Michael from those of passion and wanting, to daily tales of the happenings within the sleepy small town. Michael grows resentful of the fact that he cannot be with Pauline and that she is socializing with other young men and women. It literally drives him crazy to the point that he lashes out at a fellow soldier in the bunks. This led to that soldier’s retaliation of a rifle shot right through Michael’s buttock!
As Michael returns home earlier than expected, Pauline is met with Michael’s proposal. Quickly and unconventionally, they marry and begin their married life living with Michael’s mother in a small apartment above the store. The cramped quarters prove to be a challenge for the spirited Pauline, but Michael is apparently able to sooth her into logic and reason… to be sensible and come and live the life with him that she had chosen. These two young’ns suffer the struggles of early wedhood and the reader watches Pauline’s high spirit draw out Michael’s true heart felt feelings towards her. Michael and Pauline have 3 children and eventually move to the suburbs, mom-in-law in tow. Michael opens a larger, “super market” type of store and grows away from the small town store.
You see Pauline’s doubts surface about her marriage in her flirtation with a neighborhood divorcee… and her attempts at straying in the relationship being caught by Michael’s acute awareness and thoroughness. It seems as though Pauline is tied to her role of mother, cook and caretaker. Although, none of those roles seems to fill her spirit. Her passionate fights and make-ups with Michael make for a reality in their marriage that is enjoyable to watch and read about.
The good thing about this novel is that it spans the lifetime of these characters, including their three children, Lindy, George and Karen. We learn that their oldest daughter, Lindy, runs away causing a pain in the family that causes irreparable harm. After years pass, Pauline is contacted by Lindy’s “landlady” who informs her that Lindy has been committed, hospitalized of sorts, and that Lindy’s son needs to be picked up or she’d have to contact social services to pick him up. Pauline and Michael jump on a plane to take their first flight, ever, to San Francisco to pick up Lindy and her son (I loved this part of the story). When they arrive in San Francisco, they learn that Lindy is really self-committed to a commune, of sorts, and has renamed herself to “Serenity.” They arrive at the landlady’s apartment to later be introduced to Pagan, Lindy’s son. Michael’s reaction to that name is priceless! Michael, Pauline and Pagan head back home, sans Lindy and begin a life raising this boy. I believe that Michael falls in love with Pauline all over again during this transition in their lives.
As Pauline and Michael celebrate their 30th Anniversary with their children, they are given a gift. The gift was a framed set of individual portraits of each of them, immediately before they met one another. The table conversation leads to explain that the picture shows them before they knew one another and what their lives were to become. Michael and Pauline reminisce, good and bad, over the span of their marriage. At bedtime, Pauline approaches bed in her slip in anticipation of love-making and Michael turns her down. They have a conversation about their marriage and Michael insults Pauline. A comment is made about Michael leaving and Pauline reacts with her typical, “then go ahead and go” childish reaction. But, this time, Michael leaves and never returns home. Pauline tries to resurrect their marriage, but it is finished for Michael and there is no return to home.
I must say that I did not like the end of this book. Michael remarries and it is more than obvious that he talks himself into believing he loves his second wife, Anna, just because she is the opposite of Pauline (i.e. total lack-luster, plain, boring, unemotional, complacent). But, I believe that he is still in love with Pauline in a way that Anna will never match. Pagan grows up well, despite the divorce. George starts a family of his own and becomes his mother’s “repair man.” Karen is plain strange and becomes an attorney for the underprivileged. By the time that Lindy returns, Pauline has died of a car accident. I hate this for two reasons: 1) the reader doesn’t get to read about Pauline’s death via from her viewpoint, we just hear about it after the fact; and 2) we don’t get to see Michael’s true reaction to her death. Seems like a lazy way to end Pauline’s story, in my opinion. Eventually, the entire family has a meal together, sans the dead Pauline, and I am not moved by any of it. I think that Tyler tries to tie up the ending by having Michael walk to Pauline’s house at the end of the story, but I totally don’t get it at all! I read it 3 times, still don’t get it. If you get it, email me!
In any event, the ending just ruined the book for me. I had thought that, in comparison to Back When We Were Grown Ups, this book was much better… until the end. Ugh. I guess that I am not Tyler’s target audience because I want an ending with more meaning and depth. It’s almost like Tyler just gave up on the story. On the “Out of Ten Scale,” unfortunately, I would have to give this one a six. It would have gotten a 7-8, however the story just bombed for me at the end. I guess this author just isn’t my cup of tea, after all.
On a final note, I don’t think that, in a marriage, there is such thing as being anything but an amateur… there is no “being a pro” at it. Marriage is a dance, a discovery, a union, and a commitment to friendship. As people grow and change, the dance changes… the union changes. You either learn to remain a part of it or you walk away. There would be no way of “being a pro,” I believe. The only way to be is just to live it and try to remain tethered to one another by the truth of pure love.
Buy Book at Amazon.Com: An Amateur Marriage