Thursday, 13 October 2016

"The Amateur Marriage" by Anne Tyler - October 2016

We found the book excellently written, really flowing along, with crystal clear characterisations. Anne Tyler has such a great style that we were all interested to read more works by her (it was the first Anne Tyler for all of us, I think). The story itself was quite calm and minimal, so not all of us would necessarily recommend this particular book to friends, but it was exciting to discover such a good writer. With the fewest words and scenes - a piece of clothing, a look, a line of dialogue - she captured each character vividly. The same with the decades she takes us through in the story (from the stifled 50's to the 70's and 80's), which she evoked clearly with just a few comments. For example the main (or maybe just the most colourful) character Pauline had what one group member described as this "wonderful slap-dash cooking style", where she enthusiastically advocated this recipe for "chinese" meatloaf by adding tins of chinese vegetables, which is such a typical 50's cookbook thing to do - add some tins, and call it something exotic!

We really appreciated the fast pace at which each chapter jumped ahead in time, dropping us a decade ahead without warning. It showed the evolution and then deterioration of Pauline and Michael's marriage, these two very mis-matched people who after 35 years together finally break it off, with the calm, introverted Michael then marrying Anna, a woman of his own temperament. At the end of the book, after Pauline's funeral, we hear how from this distance he can finally appreciate all the liveliness, goodness, excitement, the colour and life that Pauline brought to their relationship and family, how devotedly she looked after the kids, after his mother, and then after their grandchild, and not just the crazy and enervating fights that resulted from her antics, her quick temper, and the mismatch between the two of them.

Their oldest daughter Lindy rebels strongly against their home - both because of the restrictive family atmosphere so typical of a respectable 1950's family living in suburbia, and because of the fundamental dishonesty she senses between her mother and her father. When 7 years old, Lindy witnesses her mother excitedly receiving flirty phone calls from a neighbour, who Pauline then goes to meet and ends up sharing a kiss with, and even in the short scenes of Lindy walking in on Pauline on the phone, the sense that she feels something is wrong there is palpable. At 17, Lindy runs away from home, and doesn't re-enter the family life until over 20 years later. PAuline and Michael eventually find out Lindy is living in a drug rehab commune, which refuses them entry; they collect Lindy's son Pagan from Lindy's landlady, and adopt this scared and silent boy. When the family comes together later, and Lindy eventually makes contact again and joins them, we found that the adult Lindy's character wasn't as convincingly sketched as all the others - we found ourselves wondering whether a grown up Lindy, now married to a man with 2 daughters that Lindy helped raise from childhood, wouldn't have tried to make contact with Pagan sooner, and didn't really find good enough reaasons for her behaviour. However, her interactions with her family struck us as so real, again due to the minimal but vivid descriptions the author is so good at, that it was a pleasure to read every scene- at one point at the wake after Pauline's funeral, one of the other grandchildren tells the story of Pauline backing the car into a neighbour walking by, apologises, puts the car back in gear, and then runs right back into the same man. When everybody laughs, Lindy's brother protests that "that wasn't really what Pauline was like", even though the facts were accurate enough, everyone keeps laughing anyway, and he exchanges one look with his long lost sister Lindy, who glances back, and it's clear they understand each other - that doesn't really tell the whole story of Pauline. Another well told scene, again a calm and minimal one, was the melancholy of Michael when he drives through his old neighbourhood decades later; the changes, the stores and families that disappeared; he remembers the families who lost sons in the war, and Anne Tyler describes all of this without sentimentality, and without glossing over or sensationalising anything. A really enjoyably written book.
By Cordula