The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
Summary (adapted from Publishers Weekly): In December 1941 in St. Cassians, a mainly Eastern European conclave in Baltimore, 20-year-old Michael Anton meets Pauline and is immediately smitten. They marry after Michael is discharged from the army, but their temperaments don't mix. For Michael, self-control is the greatest of virtues; for Pauline, expression is what makes us human (whether that expression is a good idea or not). At Pauline's urging, the two move to the suburbs, where they raise three children, George, Karen and Lindy. Too much more would be giving away the plot, but it won't come as a surprise to hear that they eventually divorce, after 30 years of mostly downs with very few ups. The rest of the novel follows their separate, yet still connected, lives.
My thoughts: I'm finding that I really enjoy Anne Tyler. My book club read Digging to America earlier this year and I really liked it, particularly the parts about the little girls (it was worth it for the "binky party" - where her mother tried to get rid of her daughter's soother addiction - alone). I'd also read The Accidental Tourist back in library school for a project on popular fiction, but had put her from my mind after that. I'm glad I've found her again!
The jacket copy says "Anne Tyler captures the evocative nuances of everyday life during these decades with such telling precision..." and this is true - Tyler is excellent at capturing the sounds, smells, sights - the whole atmosphere - of a situation. I was particularly struck by the going-away-to-war party scene in the community hall - you can smell the pergoies, see the whole neighbourhood gathered together, from babies to seniors, and hear the women gossiping while they "finickily [readjust] the sprigs of parsley garnish after one or another of the men had passed through loading his plate."
Publishers Weekly pointed out that "A lesser novelist would take moral sides, using this story to make a didactic point" and this is really true - I kept wanting to root for either Michael or Pauline, but Tyler wouldn't let me. Even the characters themselves sometimes acknowledg (in non-heated moments) their joint responsibility for their problems. I think this was very well done, as many "women's novels" have the wife as a long-suffering victim and the husband as a cad, period. Here they were both long-suffering but neither was a terrible person (though they could be very unkind) - they just didn't fit together.
The title is really interesting, too. It made me wonder if I have an amateur marriage and if everyone thinks they do, at some point. I don't think mine is amateur, but after only 4 years, it's still evolving. It made me think about marriage as a process - even after 30 years, this couple didn't have a "professional" one.