Anne Tyler is a formidably skilful storyteller, with every narrative trick at her effortless command. Her latest novel, like its predecessors, is concerned with the minutiae of everyday life. The Amateur Marriage opens in 1941, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ends 60 years later, with America once again in shock following the uniquely horrible destruction of the World Trade Centre.
The first of these historic events causes the young Michael Anton to sign up for military service. He joins the army to impress his girlfriend, Pauline Barclay, with whom he believes he is madly in love. Michael is offered no opportunity to display his heroism, thanks to a fellow private who shoots him in the thigh in what their superiors take to be an accident. He returns to Baltimore and, in due course, marries Pauline, despite a last-minute hitch on the day of the wedding.
Michael is as conservative and stolid as his wife is tempestuous and easily offended. To begin with, they live in a room above Anton's Grocery, the family business which Michael now runs in place of his widowed mother. Mrs Anton has already lost one son, Danny, to a crippling illness, and dotes on Michael, whose "war wound" has brought him back to her. Pauline gives birth to a daughter, Lindy, and tries to raise her in these cramped, claustrophobic surroundings. There are scenes, witnessed by Mother Anton, as Pauline calls her, and dramatic exits.
Pauline endures a second pregnancy, and then Michael moves his family out of town to a newly constructed housing development, Elmview Acres. The Antons have a lawn and a driveway and there is a communal pool in which Lindy, her brother George and baby Karen learn to swim. Mother Anton goes with them, drifting into forgetfulness and near-senility as the story progresses.
The novel is very informative about changes in fashion and the eating habits of Americans (there are some memorably ghastly recipes, with the ubiquitous pineapple rings) during the second half of the 20th century. Tyler revels in such seemingly trivial details, scattering the pages with brand names.
On a superficial level, The Amateur Marriage can scarcely be faulted. It's with the characters, such as they are, that this reader feels disenchanted. Tyler has expressed the opinion that most people don't change for the better or benefit from their mistakes. She has a point, but it's not one that can sustain a book of this length. There are no depths to Michael and Pauline. What you see is what you get.
There are painful matters recounted here, but Anne Tyler, as ever, shies away from their darker implications. Lindy runs away from home and becomes a hippie in California, fuelling her body with drink and drugs and neglecting her son, Fagan, whom she dumps on a fellow dropout. If there are subtle, confused reasons for Lindy's wild behaviour, the author doesn't even begin to explore them. She rests content with the facts, and it is not enough.
A great writer like Alice Munro, who covers a similar, essentially domestic territory, would have used this material for one of her long short stories. Munro respects the limitations of dullness. Tyler never suggests, never hints at mysteries, but always tells, tells, tells. She may refer to cancer, madness, the woe that is in marriage and the torments of loving, but the fictional landscape she creates is a cosy place. She is out to warm the reader's heart, as literary sentimentalists invariably do.
The best sequence in The Amateur Marriage is sharply comic, and a reminder that when Tyler is being beadily observant she is on sure ground. What comes before and after it is cutesy and relentlessly soft-centred. It's as if Tyler were whispering in one's ear: "I know we live in a terrible world, but never mind." The finest novelists do mind, and that's the difference between them and the heart-warming Anne Tyler.
Paul Bailey's 'A Dog's Life' is published by Hamish HamiltonReuse content