January 19, 2004 12:00 PM


by Anne Tyler

The New Year is barely a week old, but 2004 may not produce a better book title than The Amateur Marriage. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, felt like bumbling amateurs when facing the challenges of family life? Tyler (The Accidental Tourist) follows Michael and Pauline Anton from their first meeting in the days after Pearl Harbor through courtship, children, divorce and old age. The arc of their lives is familiar: the move to the suburbs, prosperity, the rejection of their new life by contemptuous children raised on rock and roll. But Michael is poisoned by the suspicion that other couples grew “seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever—the last couple left in the amateurs’ parade.” A distant and methodical man, Michael staggers through decades of conflict with the giddy, temperamental Pauline and comes to believe that they are fundamentally mismatched. When their daughter Lindy runs away to become a hippie (she will stay away for 30 years), he sees this as her pronouncement that the Antons “are not really a couple at all. And this is not really a family.”

But of course it is, and the bitter regret that finally drives Michael out of the marriage is another variant of the cosmic longing that Tyler limns so expertly. As always, she shows a fine eye for the telling gesture—’50s housewives slyly slip a little “gourmet” zing into the meat and potatoes. But some characters, like Lindy, remain sketchy, and despite Tyler’s superb prose, the book sometimes fails to transcend its deliberately conventional story line.

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