Michael has been working with his widowed mother in an East Baltimore grocery when he runs out to help Pauline, a fetching young lady who has cut her head while impulsively leaping from a streetcar. In describing this scene in her sixteenth novel, Anne Tyler writes: "There was a reverent, alert silence, as if everyone understood that this moment was significant. . . Michael pried away a petal of Pauline's hair and started dabbing with the cotton wad. Pauline held very still." Not too much later, she is racing down the street in a red coat to see him off to war in December of 1941. And when he returns, she is there to greet him.
They are very different from each other she is vivacious and a go getter; he is socially awkward and a plodder, often unsure of himself. Still, they marry. Like many other couples of the period, they are amateurs in marriage in such an intimate relationship with only the slightest abilities to cope with its pitfalls and pleasures. They quarrel about money. Pauline is not satisfied with their sex life, and Michael is constantly irritated with her irresponsible unpredictability. They raise three children but Pauline considers Michael to be a cold and remote father. She blames him when Lindy, their independent eldest daughter, walks out of their lives one day and is not seen or heard from again for seven years. The mystery surrounding her disappearance whittles away at their already brittle relationship.
Lindy is in San Francisco at a place called Fleet Street Retreat, and when her parents fly out to bring her home, they are not allowed to see their drugged out daughter. Instead, they return to Baltimore with her sullen and untalkative son Pagan. They decide to raise him. But not even this nurturing project can bring them closer. On their thirtieth anniversary, Michael surprises Pauline with an act that seems totally out of keeping with his nature.
In this fascinating novel. Anne Tyler explores the relationship between two mismatched individuals. She notes: "Pauline believed that marriage was an interweaving of two souls, while Michael viewed it as two people traveling side by side but separately." The novel, covering six decades, reveals that marriage is tested at every turn. The obstacles are tremendous, and they never stop coming.
In her last three novels (Ladder of Years, A Patchwork Planet, and Back When We Were Grownups), Tyler has shown that domestic distress is rampant in American society now characterized by high expectations and disposable relationships. In an interview about The Amateur Marriage, she stated: "It seems to me that good novels celebrate the mystery in ordinary life, and summing it up in psychological terms strips the mystery away."
Tyler refuses to minimize Michael and Pauline's clashing temperaments or to give a simple answer for the unhappiness in their marriage. Instead, she revels in the mysteries of human nature and the resiliency of men and women in the face of the changes that force them to acknowledge the difficulties of deep intimacy.