There are a lot of books that talk about married life. Some paint pictures of marriage that are all roses and candy — good times, honeymoons that last for years, perfect portraits of happy couples. Other stories paint pictures of locks and keys — the secrets, the mysteries within a marriage. Then there are books that tell it like it is — that marriage is not always sunshine and rose petals, no matter how perfect the wedding day is. A marriage is not only about two people falling in love with and loving each other, but a union of practicalities, the management of two distinct personalities. It’s not a very romantic notion is it? But that is a reality of marriage.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler captures the reality of marriage perfectly. Her story begins with the meeting of Michael and Pauline in 1941. Infatuation strikes both by surprise and they fall in love with each other quickly. Despite their difference in personalities (Michael is as straight-laced as Pauline is carefree), they weather the trials in their budding romance and exchange vows at the altar. Visions of marriage dance in their heads — how different they are from each other, we will know as we grow with them throughout the story. It is a marriage of two amateurs… but then again, aren’t we all amateurs as we begin married life?
Is a marriage mastered? Or is it meant to be a relationship of learning and re-learning? You are inspired to reflect on these questions as the story of Michael and Pauline unravels. You are witness to the doubts and insecurities of their early married life, when they adjust not only to rearing their first child but to growing (glaring?) differences in their personalities. Then there is the fact of them living with Michael’s mother.
The story covers more than thirty years of their lives, and their children’s lives as well. You are a voyeur to their married life as one resists sexual temptations, as they deal with the family’s black sheep, as they age but not grow together. You are witness to how silence causes cracks within a marriage, and how the things you first fell in love with in your spouse are the first things that start getting to you. You’ll find yourself nodding in agreement, gasping in surprise (and maybe in agreement), shaking your head in shock and hoping you could learn more, more, more about each one of them.
The characters seem typical of a family drama — a serious father, a vivacious mother, the black sheep, the good son, the good daughter, the seemingly-imposing mother-in-law, the requisite girlfriends of our vivacious mother, friendly neighbors, old school friends. But Anne Tyler’s characterization of each one is hardly typical. You find yourself learning to feel deeply for each one of them. Maybe it’s because you can relate to a certain trait one character has, or one reminds you of a family member of your own. Either way, you eventually get to sympathize with the characters, so much so that you may cry or rejoice with them in different moments in the book.
I liked The Amateur Marriage because it didn’t try too hard to explain a typical marriage. It didn’t over-romanticize nor did it become overly cynical. There is no sugar-coating and no hand-holding. It tells it like it is — the reality of married life, the reality of family life. I highly recommend this book, especially to fellow married couples. Do we ever graduate from being amateurs? Anne Tyler’s story is great inspiration to nurture your marriage such that it doesn’t have the immaturity and clumsiness of an amateur, but that it hopefully has the eagerness, animation and spirit of one.