Some months later, it became apparent that there was no hope for salvaging my marriage, and Tyler‘s book still remained on my nightstand. I took the plunge, and in doing so, found an incredible amount of wisdom, insight and humanity in Tyler‘s perceptive story that shed new light on the way the heart and soul can be ravaged by marriage and divorce. In that way, reading it was quite therapeutic, while again confirming why Tyler is one of the most respected “popular“ writers of her generation, and earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her modern classic, “Breathing Lessons.“ “The Amateur Marriage“ is also a decidedly ambitious work, with a number of unexpected surprises, as well, all of which gives it range, power and an undeniably compelling quality, even when it is at its most heartbreaking and penetrating.
In the book‘s first chapter, “Common Knowledge,“ Tyler introduces us to Michael and Pauline, two very different people who first meet in the days prior to WWII, and will spend the next 30 years of their life married to each other, until Michael decides he can no longer stay with her:
“Anyone in the neighborhood could tell you how Michael and Pauline first met.
It happened on a Monday afternoon early in December of 1941. St. Cassian was its usual poky self that daya street of narrow East Baltimore row houses, carefully kept little homes intermingled with shops no bigger than small parlors. The Golka twins, identically kerchiefed, compared cake rouges through the window of Sweda‘s Drugs. Mrs. Pozniak stepped out of the hardware store with a tiny brown paper bag that jingled. Mr. Kostka‘s Model-B Ford puttered past, followed by a stranger‘s sleekly swishing Chrysler Airstream and then by Ernie Moskowicz on the butcher‘s battered delivery bike.
In Anton‘s Grocerya dim, cram-packed cubbyhole with an L-shaped wooden counter and shelves that reached the low ceilingMichael‘s mother wrapped two tins of peas for Mrs. Brunek. She tied them up tightly and handed them over without a smile, without a “Come back soon“ or a “Nice to see you.“ (Mrs. Anton had had a hard life.) One of Mrs. Brunek‘s boysCarl? Paul? Peter? they all looked so much alikepressed his nose to the glass of the penny-candy display. A floorboard creaked near the cereals, but that was just the bones of the elderly building settling deeper into the ground.
Michael was shelving Woodbury‘s soap bars behind the longer, left-hand section of the counter. He was twenty at the time, a tall young man in ill-fitting clothes, his hair very black and cut too short, his face a shade too thin, with that dark kind of whiskers that always showed no matter how often he shaved. He was stacking the soap in a pyramid, a base of five topped by four, topped by three. .. although his mother had announced, more than once, that she preferred a more compact, less creative arrangement.
Then, tinkle, tinkle! and wham! and what seemed at first glance a torrent of young women exploded through the door. They brought a gust of cold air with them and the smell of auto exhaust. “Help us!“ Wanda Bryk shrilled. Her best friend, Katie Vilna, had her arm around an unfamiliar girl in a red coat, and another girl pressed a handkerchief to the red-coated girl‘s right temple. “She‘s been hurt! She needs first aid!“ Wanda cried.
Michael stopped his shelving. Mrs. Brunek clapped a hand to her cheek, and Carl or Paul or Peter drew in a whistle of a breath. But Mrs. Anton did not so much as blink. “Why bring her here?“ she asked. “Take her to the drugstore.“
“The drugstore‘s closed,“ Katie told her.
“It says so on the door. Mr. Sweda‘s joined the Coast Guard.“
“He‘s done what?“
The girl in the red coat was very pretty, despite the trickle of blood running past one ear. She was taller than the two neighborhood girls but slender, more slightly built, with a leafy cap of dark-blond hair and an upper lip that rose in two little points so sharp they might have been drawn with a pen. Michael came out from behind the counter to take a closer look at her. “What happened?“ he asked heronly her, gazing at her intently.
“Get her a Band-Aid! Get iodine!“ Wanda Bryk commanded. She had gone through grade school with Michael. She seemed to feel she could boss him around.
The girl said, “I jumped off a streetcar.“
Her voice was low and husky, a shock after Wanda‘s thin violin notes. Her eyes were the purple-blue color of pansies. Michael swallowed.“
There is poetic justice in the fact that that Michael and Pauline, while destined to e together, are basically disastrously mismatched. She is impulsive, impractical, big-hearted and believes that love can triumph over anything. He is reserved, cautious, judgmental and almost defiant in his self-righteousness. In the heat of WWII fever, they wed, but the truth is that they never should have. For this reason, they remain “amateurs“ at the art of marriage, even as they carve out a life together, raise children and segue from one decade to another.
Because they are so different, their bitter and unrelenting quarrels build over time with a stunning sort of regularity and tedium to which many will be able to relate. Pauline believes as she always has, that their rifts can be mended, but to Michael they become unbearable, forcing him to believe that divorce is not only his only option, but will bring him liberation and redemption. By the time they reach the 1970‘s, diversions, such as caring for their little grandson, Pagan, whom they rescue from Haight-Ashbury when their goes into rehab, cannot steer them from the inevitable destruction of their marriage.
At the end of the book, when readers will most likely expect that they know the outcome of the story, Tyler lobs in a hand grenade of a plot twist that is fitting poetic justice, especially since the complexity and unpredictability of relationships is such a major theme throughout. In lesser hands, this sort of device might simply detonate and explode, but in Tyler‘s, it serves to illustrate a deeper point about human survival. This is a poignant and unforgettable book that dares to ask if we all aren‘t amateurs somehow when it comes to dealing with the forces that keep people together or tear them apart. It resonates with a universality that makes this a must-read not only for those who have dealt with or are coping with the end of a marriage, but for those who simply appreciate finely crafted examinations of human connection.