As you might guess from the title, The Amateur Marriage deals with a marriage. Like every marriage, it has good points and bad ones, happy occasions and sad ones. In some ways, Michael and Pauline are mismatched. He is plodding and conservative; she is impulsive and romantic. Because the couple come together just before Michael goes off to war (1941), they rush into marriage without knowing each other as well as they probably should.
Despite the impact of this wartime setting on their decision, their marriage is far from unique in this regard. Many couples head into marriage for a host of reasons, not all of them wise ones
While Anne Tyler leaves it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, my own take on this novel is that every marriage is imperfect and perhaps the worst injustice, or saddest outcome, is giving up too easily. I don’t mean to suggest that couples should never divorce. There are abusive relationships, and I don’t limit those to physical abuse—nor is it always the husband who is abusive. But I do think many couples give up too easily, and may ask themselves later in life why they did.
Of course we sometimes see individuals who make a go of a late-in-life marriage after having gone through one or more divorces. But I wonder if this is often because the individuals have mellowed and learned to prioritize their relationship, or to have more realistic expectations.
Michael and Pauline have a child, their eldest, who leaves home, falls out of touch and into drug problems. This trauma is one that can befall virtually any family, I suspect, from those with obvious problems to those that seem to have it all together. I don’t want to tell too much—I hate spoilers—so I won’t go into more detail. Suffice it to say that this novel was one that made me smile at times, cry at others, and made me think. For me that’s one of the real tests of a good novel.
As a writer, I stand in awe of Anne Tyler’s ability to enter the minds of very different characters and leave you feeling as if you knew them well. I also admire a novel where every character is flawed (as all humans are) and exasperating at times, but ultimately presented in a way that causes the reader to care about them and feel glad when things go well and sad when they do not. When it comes to marriage, aren’t we all amateurs?