Anne Tyler's latest: 30 years of history

January 04, 2004|By Martha Southgate | Martha Southgate,Special to the Sun

The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler. Knopf. 306 pages. $24.95.

When you open an Anne Tyler novel, you know that you are putting yourself into the strong and seasoned hands of a Pulitzer Prize-winning professional. Since 1964, Tyler has written 16 novels, the majority of them set in Baltimore, where she has lived for many years. Her love for and knowledge of her adopted hometown are obvious, her affection for her characters palpable and her skill and charm as a writer undeniable. In fact, the only quibble one can have with her new novel, The Amateur Marriage, is that maybe it goes down a little too easy, carries a gleam that's a little too bright.

As she has before, she turns her eye to a marriage between a flighty, excitable woman and a stolid, unimaginative man. Pauline and Michael meet in his mother's aging grocery just as World War II heats up. Caught up in the fervor that surrounds them, they quickly wed, just before Michael enlists. That's their first mistake -- the rest take 30 years to make and involve three children and ultimately the rescue of their nearly lost grandchild Pagan.

Tyler's command of what will move a story forward and engross a reader thoroughly is faultless -- I found myself thinking about this novel and wanting to get back to it when I had to put it down. At the same time, though, I finished wanting, as the Grinch comes to realize, just a little bit more.

The novel covers more than 30 years in the lives of the characters and in American history and too often feels like a sketch, not the richly imagined worlds that Tyler has graced us with in the past. The ups and downs of Michael and Pauline's marriage are frequently resonant but sometimes fall into predictable paths. And the agonizing pain of losing a child to the streets -- or of beginning to parent again late in life -- is barely touched on.

This is particularly frustrating because there is no denying Tyler's talent and skill at telling a story and her flashes of lovely language. A writer who writes a sentence like "They saw that Pauline was crying; that Michael was leaning across the table to cup her chrysanthemum head in both hands," makes it clear that she can do better than this later sentence: "The real problem was that they were mismatched. They simply never should have married each other." What she has shown elegantly in other parts of the book, she has chosen, periodically, to simply tell readers in much flatter, less imaginative ways, weakening her own considerable powers.

So The Amateur Marriage is in no way the work of an amateur. It's enjoyable, involving, engaging and often insightful. Tyler's got the right stuff, and this novel gives us a portion of it. One looks forward to a greater helping in the future.

Martha Southgate is the author of the novels The Fall of Rome and Another Way to Dance. She has been a staff writer for the New York Daily News and the magazines Premiere and Essence. She is at work on a new novel to be published by Houghton Mifflin.

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