#LiteraryWives: The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

BookBrowse synopsis: They seemed like the perfect couple—young, good-looking, made for each other. The moment Pauline, a stranger to the Polish Eastern Avenue neighborhood of Baltimore (though she lived only twenty minutes away), walked into his mother’s grocery store, Michael was smitten. And in the heat of World War II fervor, they are propelled into a hasty wedding. But they never should have married.

Pauline, impulsive, impractical, tumbles hit-or-miss through life; Michael, plodding, cautious, judgmental, proceeds deliberately. While other young marrieds, equally ignorant at the start, seemed to grow more seasoned, Pauline and Michael remain amateurs. In time their foolish quarrels take their toll. Even when they find themselves, almost thirty years later, loving, instant parents to a little grandson named Pagan, whom they rescue from Haight-Ashbury, they still cannot bridge their deep-rooted differences. Flighty Pauline clings to the notion that the rifts can always be patched. To the unyielding Michael, they become unbearable.

From the sound of the cash register in the old grocery to the counterculture jargon of the sixties, from the miniskirts to the multilayered apparel of later years, Anne Tyler captures the evocative nuances of everyday life during these decades with such telling precision that every page brings smiles of recognition. Throughout, as each of the competing voices bears witness, we are drawn ever more fully into the complex entanglements of family life in this wise, embracing, and deeply perceptive novel.


The Amateur Marriage is so much more than a book about marriage. The last paragraph of the synopsis sums it up nicely: “From the sound of the cash register in the old grocery to the counterculture jargon of the sixties, from the miniskirts to the multilayered apparel of later years, Anne Tyler captures the evocative nuances of everyday life during these decades with such telling precision that every page brings smiles of recognition.” Each character is carefully thought out; their outfits, their mannerisms, their interactions with others. Like the “multilayered apparel of later years,” the characters contain layer upon layer; good qualities, irritating ones, growth over the years (or not). And what they do and say does not always match up with what they are thinking and feeling. While sometimes it does.

The community feeling around Anton’s grocery store during the first part of the book reminds me of Most Anything You Please by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole. And this description of Mrs. Anton is a good indication of what’s to come in the book: “Mrs. Pozniack asked for Cream of Wheat, Fels Naphtha, and a tin of Heinz baked beans. Mrs. Anton set each item flatly on the counter. She was a straight-faced woman, gray all over. Not just her hair was gray but her dull, slack skin and her lusterless eyes and her stretched-out, pilled, man’s sweater worn over a gingham dress. She had a way of looking past her customers’ shoulders while she dealt with them, as if she hoped someone else would show up, someone less disappointing.”

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Pauline and Michael grew up during a time of certain outwardly expectations for married couples; the husband goes out and works while the wife stays home and raises the children. In their case, this does not seem to be the cause of the conflict in their marriage as it has been in other books we’ve read. Although, Pauline does think that Michael spends too much time at work – I suspect that’s partly to avoid the chafing that goes on at home.

It’s the inner expectations Pauline and Michael have of marriage that is the issue: “Pauline believed that marriage was an interweaving of souls, while Michael viewed it as two people traveling side by side but separately.” Pauline wants passion and devotion, while Michael wants a steady partner. The reader knows from the start that it’s never going to work. Separately, they are good and loving people and parents–who even admire each other–but together they are a train crash waiting to happen.

She was a good person, really. Well, and so was Michael himself, he believed. It was only that the two of them together weren’t good. Or weren’t… what was he trying to say, weren’t nice. They weren’t always very nice to each other; he couldn’t explain just why.

Ultimately, this book is a cautionary tale. Pauline and Michael had a rushed and interrupted courtship – they didn’t get to know each other very well before marrying, leading to disappointment on both sides.

She chafed daily at his failings…. And yet underneath, she knew that none of these was the real problem. The real problem was that they were mismatched. They simply never should have married each other.

Although whenever he voiced this thought himself, it cut her to the heart. He would be willing to give her up? He could picture a life without her? Then she would see that perhaps it was not that he was too slow but that she was too quick and impatient, not that he was too deliberate but that she was too reckless, and so forth. And she would dissolve into tears and wish she could do it all over again–meet him, fall in love, marry him–but this time, properly valuing him.

[Liz Dexter has 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 else?]

Join us in December for The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams!

23 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

  1. whatmeread says:

    Tyler has another book that is very similar to this one, I thought, except the couple are a little more forgiving and they stay together. It’s the more well known Breathing Lessons. She seems fascinated by this generation, which is her parents’ also. I didn’t mention, as both you and Eva did, how well her book reflects the times it is placed in.

    • Naomi says:

      That sounds like it might make a good companion to this one. I was surprised by the divorce – I just assumed they would stay together and make it work somehow. Either way, I’m sure is pretty common.

      • whatmeread says:

        I put it on our list, as we will have to look for more books at the beginning of the year. They don’t get divorced in Breathing Lessons, and in a way they aren’t as exaggerated as in this book. (At least, I thought she was exaggerated.)

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Thank you for the shout-out and links! I think the quote you pull out “Pauline believed that marriage was an interweaving of souls, while Michael viewed it as two people traveling side by side but separately.” is at the heart of the book, and the couple, while fitting into the standard Tyler conflicting pair are a bit more subtly nuanced than some of her books – then, Digging to America doesn’t have the standard Tyler characters really at all so maybe she’s starting to move away from them here.

  3. A Life in Books says:

    It’s so long since I read this that I don’t have anything to add except to say that you’ve made me want to read it again. There’s such a sadness in the quote you’ve pulled out revealing how very different each of their expectations are of their marriage.

    • Naomi says:

      I did feel sad for them… Making the choice to marry each other meant missing the opportunity to find partners they might be happier with. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have! All the “what-ifs”…

  4. madamebibilophile says:

    It’s been ages since I read Anne Tyler but I do enjoy her. This sounds quite a sad portrait of everyday tragedy. I have A Spool of Blue Thread in the TBR, you’ve encouraged me to dust it off!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s sad to think of them living with a 30 year mistake, but there is also a lot of joy in the novel. I will definitely be reading another Anne Tyler at some point!

  5. buriedinprint says:

    This is one I’ve not read but I’ve had copies off and on (currently off). Like Laila, I just find her reliable. How much I enjoy one of her books seems to have more to do with the timing of my reading it rather than the details of the story; she seems to be remarkably consistent. That quote Liz refers to is really so simple and poignant; one feels that one can spot the marriages in one’s experience that fit that kind of ordinary and sad misunderstanding.

  6. The Paperback Princess says:

    Oh yes, you have totally nailed this book. I love everything you’re saying about it being a cautionary tale, about their interrupted courtship, about their differing expectations of marriage.

    This novel is a bit like a time capsule, so ably capturing a time even though it’s about a relationship.

    Your review is giving me a lot to chew on!

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good way to put it – that the book is like a time capsule! I could totally picture everything as though I was watching an old movie or TV series.

  7. wadholloway says:

    You know I enjoy Literary Wives. It helps me think about my own relationships. I am though getting closer to actually having read the book, as I’ve been picking up Tylers at the library as I come across them to keep up at least a little bit with Liz’s readathon.
    “two people traveling side by side but separately” was exactly my own view of marriage and I feel for Pauline, who stuck at it for so long without getting out of the marriage what she needed, which was pretty much my ex’s position too. Still, she (my ex) has me pretty well educated now and if I’m ever 25 again I’ll know what to do.

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! If only we could all go back and do things differently!
      Maybe I’m supposed to take Pauline’s expectations of marriage, but I think I also align more with Michael’s. But, luckily for us, it seems to be working!

  8. annelogan17 says:

    I just love this Literary Wives club you have going. If I didn’t have my day-job I would certainly join in. For now, I’ll have to enjoy reading your blogs and sitting on the sidelines, which quite honestly, is a pleasure in itself! By the sounds of it, I’m shocked these people have stayed together so long…

    • Naomi says:

      These days, I don’t imagine they would have. But it was different back then. And they tried so hard!

      If you ever think you might want to join us officially, let us know! 🙂 🙂

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