The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

I’m very excited to welcome another guest book reviewer to the Bookgaga blog. This time, I’m delighted to swing the spotlight over to Isabelle Giraud, a dear book friend I met on Twitter and with whom I’ve since been up to Canada Reads-related mischief (but that’s another story). You too will fall in love with ebullient Isabelle when you follow her on Twitter @BlueShoes55, where she waxes in rhapsodic and heartfelt fashion on books and other lively subjects.

The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler was born in 1941 in Minneapolis, Minnesota but grew up in Quaker communities around North Carolina. After graduating at age 19 from Duke University, she majored in Russian studies at Columbia University. She married Iranian psychiatrist Taghi Modaressi and the couple had two daughters. Tyler and her husband lived in Baltimore, Maryland whose streets and neighbourhoods, especially the historical suburb of Roland Park, provide the background of most of Tyler’s novels.

Tyler won the 1989 Pulitzer prize for Breathing Lessons and the 1985 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist which was made into a film starring William Hurt and Geena Davis – and has a strong cult-following although she is not a literary household name. She taught English studies at Duke and is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Tyler creates narrow domestic universes within the confines of a few streets, sometimes a few rooms, where she minutely dissects, with a light hand and infinite compassion the lives of slightly off characters. Her characters are so deeply beloved, their behaviour so factually recounted, readers are forgiven if they take a while to realize they are in fact witnessing people affected with various personality disorders trying to muddle through life.

The Amateur Marriage is one such novel. Pauline and Michael meet the day of Pearl Habour and fall passionately in love. The story of their courtship, Michael’s wound, the subsequent story of their marriage is told in Tyler’s deceptively simple style but it gradually emerges that everything is not right and the contrasting upbeat tone sounds more and more desperate as years go by. There are and have been scenes, painful ones. Incidents, humiliating ones. The reader comes to the gradual realization one of the pair suffers from a form of mental disorder, not socially debilitating enough to be treated or even diagnosed in those pre-Prozac days but that in the long run catastrophically erodes the fabric of family life.

Tyler’s secondary characters manage either by daily denial or by vanishing. She is at her best describing her characters’ coping with the unendurable – here a daughter’s prolonged disappearance:

Amazingly, Michael began to have mornings where Lindy’s absence was not his first thought upon waking. Instead he would travel towards the realization in a kind of two-step process, floating contentedly upward into the warmth of the summer sunlight, the chug-chug of a neighbor’s car starting, the musical murmur of voices elsewhere in the house until all at once – ‘Something’s wrong.’ And his eyes would fly open and he would know. Lindy’s missing.

We recognize fragments of ourselves in Tyler’s stories. Personality disorders are but the pathological manifestation of general character traits and she touches tenderly on this universality of our human condition without ever using “big words”. Astonishingly her contribution to modern American literature in general – and the narrative of mental frailties in particular – is not more widely recognized. Psychiatrists have been known to remark that writers, Dostoyevsky or William Styron for example, are far better at describing mental illness than medical manuals. One can only wish that one day Anne Tyler will be given her rightful place in the literary pantheon. She definitely is a reigning goddess in mine.

Favourite books by Anne TylerSaint Maybe, Morgan’s Passing, Celestial Navigation, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Tin Can Tree, A Patchwork Planet.

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