The Amateur Marriage

More perfection from the master of the domestic novel.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

William Blake wrote those famous lines 160 years before Anne Tyler ever put pen to paper, but he could easily have been describing the prolific American novelist. Tyler has an incredible knack for finding universal truths hidden in the seemingly small details of life. Her characters aren’t extraordinary people, and the things that happen to them aren’t extraordinary either. But she writes about ordinary people with such compassion, and with such a keen ear for their quirks, foibles, virtues and weaknesses, that the reader can’t help but be swept up in the story.

In The Amateur Marriage, her 16th book (she has now written 20), Tyler returns to familiar themes: families and relationships. The novel begins in the 1940s, when a young couple, Michael and Pauline, meet and marry. It follows them, their children and their grandchildren over 60 years, taking in romances, break-ups, tragedies, betrayals, fights and reconciliations – in other words, all the things that make up a human life.

The “amateurs” of the title are, of course, Michael and Pauline, who feel that everyone else has mastered marriage and parenthood in a way that they themselves are incapable of. In one passage, Michael wonders whether his old friends have the same issues with their wives:  

He believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal ignorance. He pictured them marching down a city street, as people had on the day he enlisted. Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever – the last couple left in the amateurs’ parade. 

The book’s central question is whether Michael and Pauline are, in fact, wrong or right for each other. Is their marriage a mistake? Are they victims of a kind of wartime hysteria that drove young people down the aisle, convincing them that death lurked around every corner and that any chance of love and happiness had to be seized then and there?

Or are they soul mates who can’t live without each other, despite their fiery rows and constant resentments and misunderstandings? When does marital conflict cross the line from normal to dysfunctional? When should a couple keep trying to mend a relationship, and when should they cut their losses and move on?

Tyler chooses not to answer these questions, leaving it to the reader to ponder the many grey areas of life and relationships. Nothing is black and white in The Amateur Marriage. There are no goodies and baddies, no completely happy endings and no completely sad ones.

She neither trivialises nor overdramatises the events in her character’s lives. She shows us what they’re thinking and how they’re acting, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. In an early section, Pauline goes about her day, juggling young children and a demanding mother-in-law. We watch her carry out her routine, not privy to her innermost thoughts until the passage’s very last sentence:

Sometimes, Pauline got a feeling like a terrible itch, like a kind of all-over vibration, and she thought that at any moment she might jump clear out of her skin. 

Tyler doesn’t have to tell us outright that Pauline feels trapped and depressed. Nor does she make any grand pronouncements about the lot of 1950s housewives in general. That one elegant sentence tells us all we need to know.

Sometimes, when I’m recommending Tyler’s books to people, I feel like I’m unintentionally making them sound boring. Phrases like “the mundane parts of ordinary life” and “nothing remarkable really happens” are not exactly reader-bait. After all, we read to escape normal life, not to put it under a microscope, right?

But, I promise you, Tyler will make you care about her characters – all of them – within the space of a few pages. In The Amateur Marriage, you will care about where Michael and Pauline end up just as much as you care about the serial killer being caught or the bomb being defused in more traditionally hook-filled books. That is Tyler’s genius: she gives us a microscope so that we, too, can see the universe in that grain of sand.