The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (2004)

This year I’ve been joining in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for most of the novels I own and hadn’t read yet. Just this summer, I’ve discovered two new favourites: Saint Maybe and now The Amateur Marriage – which surprised me because it was her sixteenth novel and not part of what I consider to be her golden mid-period of the 1980s-90s. Both Saint Maybe and The Amateur Marriage are, like Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (my absolute favourite and, I was gratified to discover, Tyler’s favourite, too), effectively linked short story collections in which the chapters are self-contained narratives set at a particular point in a dysfunctional family’s life, with each one often focusing on a different character.

The Amateur Marriage feels unique in Tyler’s oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. Spanning 60 years precisely, it opens with the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. In this Baltimore neighbourhood full of Polish immigrants, a spontaneous patriotic parade breaks out. In the excitement, Pauline jumps off a tram and hits her head on a lamppost. Her friends rush her to the Antons’ general store for a bandage and when Michael Anton meets her their fate is sealed. Pauline assumes Michael is bound for war and, so as not to disappoint her, he signs up. After his discharge, they marry – though Pauline had a near change of heart because they have so little in common and do nothing but fight.




“Not quite forever”

The Antons’ marriage continues in the same volatile vein – until it doesn’t. I was taken aback that a story about marriage kept going even when Michael + Pauline ended, and even after one of them was no more. About two-thirds of the way through the book, on their 30th wedding anniversary, they find that their reminiscences are mostly of bitter arguments. Pauline wryly shakes her head over their antics, but Michael says to Pauline, “It has not been fun. It’s been hell.” She goads him into leaving, and he does.

I’ve jokingly heard women saying of their husbands, “I’m training him for his second wife,” and that seems to me to be the spirit of the title. These two characters had no idea that ‘opposites attract’ but don’t make for a stable marriage, and have muddled their way through for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. I sensed Tyler’s deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.

A major thread of the novel is their eldest daughter Lindy’s teenage rebellion and eventual disappearance, reminding me a lot of Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace. Michael and Pauline retrieve her young son, Pagan, from San Francisco and raise him themselves, partly via shared custody. This theme of unexpected grandparent responsibility is a link to Saint Maybe and especially (along with the West as a setting) Clock Dance. There is no rapturous reunion to come, but the remnant of the family does eventually get back together.

Michael and Pauline are quintessential Tyler characters: the one easygoing if slightly useless (“He wished he had inhabited more of his life, used it better, filled it fuller”); the other highly strung and contrary, yet strong and efficient – “the ones who kept the planet spinning.” Michael never ceases to admire Pauline, even when he stops being married to her. In the penultimate chapter, the family swaps “Pauline stories” that exemplify how maddening but lovable she could be. You have someone in your family who’s just like that, right?



My U.S. paperback appends an interview with Tyler that I found illuminating. She knows that she doesn’t tend to break new ground with her fiction: “face it, I always write more or less the same sort of story,” she admits. During this reading project I’ve been debating whether this is a bad thing. Does it make her later work redundant? Does it mean she only had a limited store of good ideas? Are her characters types rather than three-dimensional creations? Marcie at Buried in Print loves the connections between the novels. I’m sure Liz does, too, but she’s also acknowledged that she finds individual plots strangely unmemorable.

I haven’t fully answered the above questions for myself. There are certainly Tyler books that I like more than others, but they have all been comforting and (mostly) compulsive reading. Her characters and situations feel so true to life that we don’t observe from the outside, but journey alongside and within them. (Secondhand purchase from 2nd & Charles, Hagerstown, MD, USA) See also Liz’s review.


Favourite lines:

“Was it possible to dislike your own wife? Well, no, of course not. This was just one of those ups-and-downs that every couple experienced.”

“so much about their parents had been embarrassing. Or did all children feel that way? But it seemed to George that the Antons’ lives were more extreme than other people’s. … People didn’t stay on an even keel in the Anton family. They did exaggerated things like throwing out their clothes or running away from home”


Another readalike: Larry’s Party by Carol Shields


My rating:


The 15 Tyler novels I’ve read, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Saint Maybe

The Amateur Marriage

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Earthly Possessions

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Back When We Were Grown-ups

Clock Dance

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder


Next up for me will be Noah’s Compass later in September.


26 responses

  1. It’s an interesting question about whether it’s a problem to always write the same kind of story. I hugely admire writers like Francis Spufford who seem to reinvent themselves for every book, and yet some of my other favourite writers, like Robin McKinley (who stylistically is pretty versatile) have said they essentially tell the same story every time – in McKinley’s case, that story is Beauty and the Beast. I guess if the story is good enough…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. When I saw Richard Flanagan speak at the online Hay Festival, he joked that his publisher is always exasperated with him because each book is so different from the last. I wonder if John Boyne’s editor feels the same as he’s veered between historical and contemporary settings and different styles and tones. Maybe it’s only a problem to read too many Tyler books in a short space of time; I can see how they’d get samey. Because I’m only pulling one out every few months on average, it’s not been too noticeable. Also, I think I’ve been lucky to pick a few winners in a row and ignore the slightly duff ones I’d already read.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Similar stories each time possibly works better for readers than it does for writers…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. carolyn anthony | Reply

    Hi Beck. Did you know I read Saint Maybe for a Book Club a long time ago? The scene of the brother/father driving pell-mell into a brick wall has never left me. I was so shocked.

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Yes! I thought it was only a few years ago for your Williamsport book club, maybe. I think I even mentioned that fact in one of my comments on that review: It certainly is a memorable scene.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. NNNooooOOoo. Where’s the widget that marks spoilers for *other* books in the comments? 😮

        Fortunately I read too many books, so I’ll probably forget this bit. At least I hope so! 😀


      2. Sorry about that; my mother is incorrigible!


  3. Ah… I read Noah’s Compass a while back and reviewed it on my blog. Very interesting book, but not (I think) my favorite. Still, I have so many still to read myself!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know zero about that one, so it will be fun to discover!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Ooh don’t forget to send me a link to your review when I get to that one!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I really liked this one too, though it’s been a long time since I read it. I think it’s sort of comforting to have a good idea of what kind of story I’m getting into with a Tyler novel. She writes people so well – even when they do things that make me crazy I am still interested and engaged. And because they do tend to run together for me, if I re-read one chances are I will have forgotten what’s happened! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree: her characters feel so real. There’s usually at least one element that sticks in my memory from one of her books, like a character’s profession or their family dynamic. I’ve always remembered your habit of taking one of her novels on a plane ride. After this project I will have run out of new-to-me paperbacks of her books, so I’ve started substituting Elizabeth Berg novels instead! She’s a somewhat similar author. On my last plane ride, back from the US in June, I read Open House.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It makes me happy that you’ve taken up my bookish superstition! 🙂 I’d say Elizabeth Berg is a good readalike for Tyler, although it’s been a long time since I’ve read one of her novels.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A great review and always lovely to have you along. I liked this one a lot more than I remembered, which was great as I was slightly dreading it. The long sweep of history is interesting, and the sort of chorus of other characters we touch in with through the years. I wasn’t married when I first read it, and am now in a long relationship/marriage so I wonder if that made the difference.

    As to the repeated links etc., I am finding it fascinating. I obviously need to write a round-up post (perhaps for 20 December when I’ve run out of books) as the repeating themes and the way she looks at her main types of character from different angles are something I’m really enjoying (of course I have history with this, as the repeating themes in Iris Murdoch are something I cherish). I find it odd I didn’t remember the books individually, although I am recalling them better now, but I think that’s a facet of reading them so long ago. I thought it was only her novels but I’ve just re-read a Thirkell I read only a few years ago with very little recollection of last time!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I’m glad it exceeded your expectations on a reread. In the interview I read, Tyler said she feels she did take some risks with this one: the long time span, and the hop to San Francisco for one chapter. That makes sense as a connection between Murdoch and Tyler! They (have) published a similar number of novels, too. I almost always forget how a book ends and so have started taking notes on the endings of novels in my annual book list (a Word file).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In My Name is Lucy Barton, there is the same idea, sorta: “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.” (thanks so a Guardian essay for helping me find that quote.) If the main character in that novel and the characters in Anne Tyler’s novels have this in common, I’m fine with that. If it’s a compelling story starring different characters in different places, and the author tells it in different ways, I’ll read it over and over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anne Tyler is definitely an author for you, then 🙂 I’ve enjoyed all the Elizabeth Strout books I’ve read, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I wonder if there’s any crossover between those two types of writers you’ve put forth, the always-into-new-territory and always-pacing-the-same-patch-of-ground writers. Like if one has a mid-writer’s-crisis and suddenly decides they can’t or must move! Now I’m going to have to think about that!.
    Thanks for the link, BTW. It didn’t show as a pingback on my end, for some reason, but you knew I’d find it eventually!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let me know if you think of a writer who’s done both!


  8. I loved this book. I’m going to have to read another one sometime! There are so many parts of the novel to admire, but the best for me was what you say here: “I sensed Tyler’s deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.” You get the sense that she loves all her characters – that there’s no good or bad, just different. And how their marriage affected their children was a whole interesting discussion that I left out of my own review, because I was focused on the marriage. There are so many things about this story that could be discussed.

    That’s an interesting question about telling the same story over and over. I love stories about ordinary people, and that seems to be what she’s good at writing, so she might as well go with it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was your first from Tyler? If so, you chose a great one to start with! (And if it’s an additional draw, my two favourites on the list above are the two that inspired Mary Lawson’s writing career.) I’ll look out for your Literary Wives Club review.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was my second, but the first one I read was about 25 years ago, so I’m not sure that counts anymore. I will definitely consult with your list before choosing my next! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. […] been re-reading all of Anne Tyler’s books this year, so our timing fits in nicely. Liz and Rebecca have both read this one – has anyone […]


  10. […] read yet. I’ve discovered a few terrific new-to-me ones: Earthly Possessions, Saint Maybe, The Amateur Marriage … but there have also been some slight duds. Alas, this one falls into the latter category. A […]


  11. […] The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation. […]


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