Anne Tyler


"The Amateur Marriage"

(reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran APR 04, 2004)

I had fallen out of love with Anne Tyler. In earlier years, I had been a true believer, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I loved them all. Then, an overwhelming sense of familiarity set in. Finally, one too many stories about disgruntled, middle-aged Baltimoreans did me in. I felt she had plumbed every depth, explored every nuance of these seemingly average people and quite frankly I thought I couldn't stomach another one. Then I read her latest work, The Amateur Marriage, which dissects a long-standing marriage over sixty years, and it was as if we were newlyweds all over again.

Read excerptThis, Tyler's sixteenth novel, chronicles the ups and downs of the marriage of Michael and Pauline Anton, although unfortunately, the downs outnumber the ups. Michael and Pauline "meet cute" when she stumbles into his family's grocery store several days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She had jumped off a moving street car, cut her forehead and been ushered into his store for first aid by a gaggle of girlfriends. From that moment on, staid and serious Michael was, to use the words of one of the neighborhood women, "a goner" for impetuous and impractical Pauline. In a wave of patriotic and perhaps romantic enthusiasm, Michael enlists in the army and suffers a "million dollar injury" during training. The army ships him home, right into the arms of Pauline to whom he immediately proposes. She accepts, of course, and they, like so many of the "greatest generation," bind themselves together with little more in common than that cute meeting.

Doubtless thousands of these wartime marriages prospered, each partner endowed with a sense of fulfillment and happiness. However, this is not the case with the Antons. It's a bad sign when less than two years into their marriage, Michael tells Pauline after a small spat, "I'm just fed up with you. I'm disgusted. I'm just sick to death of you and your nasty disposition. I should never have married you." Yikes. It seems that Michael and Pauline have nothing in common, their personalities are rabidly different. "By nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. She was brimming with energy-a floor pacer, a foot jiggler, a finger drummer-while he was slow and plodding and secretly somewhat lazy." Tyler avoids siding with either Michael or Pauline; each is shown to have their flaws and their strengths. Each lacks the ability to view the other except as a foil to his own imperfections.

The novel begins in late 1941 and continues on through 2001, although it never falls victim to the "and then this happened, and then this happened" syndrome. The reader is certainly aware of the passage of time but is not overwhelmed by societal or cultural asides. Tyler lets the actions of her skillfully drawn characters, both adults and children, set the tone of the times. Early on, the characters tend to think and talk in exclamation points, emphasizing the gee whiz breathlessness of the World War II era. As the story progresses, the dialogue and descriptions settle down and become more refined and less topsy turvy. The years fly by and Tyler subtly evokes that feeling that we all have, "Can I really be that old?

Tyler is not content to merely examine these lives of suburban quiet desperation, she does weave a heart rending subplot into the mix when the middle aged Antons suddenly become sole caregivers for their three year old grandson, Pagan. If this were a movie on the Lifetime channel, we all know how the story would end, with shiny happy faces all around. But it's not and without disclosing too much plot, suffice to say it's not a Hollywood ending. It is, however, an honest and moving portrait of a marriage. Michael, "believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal ignorance. He pictured them marching down a city street, as people had on the day he enlisted. Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever-the last couple left in the amateur's parade."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 194 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Amateur Marriage at MostlyFiction.com

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"A Patchwork Planet"

(reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 21, 2001)

"I'd heard about the planet quilt often, but I'd never seen it. What I had pictured was a kind of fabric map - a plaid Canada, a gingham U.S. Instead the circle was made up of mismatched squares of cloth no bigger than postage stamps, joined by uneven black stitches of a woman whose eyesight was failing. Planet Earth, in Mrs. Alford's version, was makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall into pieces at any moment.

'Pretty,' I said. Because it was sort of pretty, in an offbeat unexpected way."

Barnaby Gaitlin is on his way from Baltimore to Philadelphia for his monthly visit to his nine year old daughter when he first sees his personal angel. In the train station, Barnaby gets curious as he watches a man hurry from one person to the next, asking their destination. He's also a bit offended that he isn't asked since he believes he's a man to be trusted. Finally the man stops at a blond woman who agrees to carry the package to Philadelphia for him. Barnaby is not so much amazed that the woman would do this errand for a stranger, but of her integrity. As he watches her on the train, he's waiting for her to poke or open the envelope to see if it is contraband as he suspects. Even though there are no witnesses to speak of (she's not aware of Barnaby), she doesn't even toy with the idea of peaking inside the envelope. She seems to accept that it is a passport for the man's daughter and delivers it unopened.

Later, when Barnaby thinks about this incident he wonders if it is his personal angel. Self-deprecation leads him to assume that he would be the first Gaitlin not to understand the message being told him by his angel. The Gaitlin family is one of those old Baltimore families with the quirks of the rich. Much family history is dedicated to the story of "angels" changing the course of its family members and at nearly 30, Barnaby had yet to be visited by his.

So the following week, he devises an accidental meeting on the train in hopes of learning his angel's message. Naturally this doesn't work exactly as planned. Instead Sophia is more interested in his work at "Rent-a-Back," a company that rents out their "backs" to the elderly, shut-ins and otherwise infirm on a temporary basis - either on call or by standing appointments. Sophia decides that this is just the kind of service that her independent but aging Aunt Grace in Baltimore needs.

A Patchwork Planet is told in first person narrative by Barnaby Gaitlin. He and his coworker Martine, sincerely care about their elderly clients. When Anne Tyler invents a business she is unusually imaginative and this is the case yet again with Rent-a-Back. When Barnaby shares stories of his day and the life-learned lessons from his clients, it is with heart and depth. On the sad days, he wonders if he is in the right business, especially when they lose a client to death or when he begins to see the aging process take hold of a client that he thought was impervious. "I'm telling you don't get old! Before I started at Rent-a-Back, I thought a guy could just make up his mind to have a decent old age. Now I know that there's no such thing - or if once in a blue moon there is, it's a matter of pure blind luck. I must have seen a hundred of those sunporch sick rooms, stuffed wall-to-wall with hospital beds and IV poles and potty chairs."

Barnaby has been working for Mrs. Dibble and Rent-a-Back for eleven years. The elderly trust him and he likes the freelance nature of the work. Perhaps because he has a natural curiosity of how people live and think, he is a good at his job. Yet his family does not find Barnaby or his work endearing. His parents, brother, childhood friend, ex-wife and daughter think that he ought to get a real job, one which enables him to make more money and drive a reliable car and wear less shoddy clothes. At the core is Barnaby's juvenile history that he can't shake. He and his friends used to break into homes to steal things. You could say that even as a teenager, Barnaby was off the beaten track, since he didn't steal valuables or booze. He liked the more sentimental personal items, like photo albums, letters or snowglobes. But this didn't matter. He was the one to get caught. His mother had to make restitution with the neighbors and he went off to the reform school for rich kids. Now, approaching 30, his mother still reminds him of the $7,800 he owes her and of the embarrassment she caused the Gaitlin name. In the course of trying to right his past, he decides to pay her back the money.

A Patchwork Planet is about trust. At the same time it raises questions on the nature of change. Barnaby needs to know if he can change into the person he is supposed to be and finally begin his life. He knows he can be trusted. But do others? He is trying to understand why his clients take the good in him for granted when he (and his family) can't. In a surprising twist, by the end Barnaby comes to accept himself and his place on the planet.

Anne Tyler once again creates a lovable character in her Baltimore setting. Her fiction consistently portrays ordinary human life and family relationships with wit and perception. I highly recommend this novel, especially if you just want to feel good for a little while.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 177 reviews

Read an excerpt from A Patchwork Planet at Random House

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"Morgan's Passing"

(reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 10, 1998)

Morgan Gower works at Cullen's Hardware Store in North Baltimore.  He has seven daughters and a goodhearted wife.  As he gets into his middle years he finds his household confusing and tedious. To break up his life he pretends to be different things to different people. He actually has some weekly ritual he performs in these different personas and this is something his wife accepts as part of Morgan. Then one day he pops into the role of Dr. Morgan to help two young newlyweds deliver a baby. But, this time it's different and he becomes very dependent on the couple. This is a love story, but of the most unusual kind.

I always enjoy Anne Tyler's books.  They are humorous and her characters are eccentric. Her novels though are gentle as she has her characters navigate in a puzzling world.  Last year, I traded some books with Carl's mom and out of a whim gave her Morgan's Passing. I was surprised to find out how much she truly enjoyed the book.  I think she had a little crush on Morgan. 

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 24 reviews
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"The Accidental Tourist"

(reviewed by Judi Clark APR 13, 1999)

The Accidental Tourist was my first introduction to Anne Tyler and I still feel it is her best. She covers all the dysfunction and tragedies of family life without getting morbid or requiring a box of tissues. 

Macon Leary lives in Baltimore and belongs to a large extended family, extreme in its conventionality. His sister puts the groceries away in alphabetical order; the whole family can sit and ignore the telephone ringing and flat out don't deal with anything the least bit upsetting.   Macon's job as the "Accidental Tourist" is to tell people how to travel without experiencing anything foreign - just like never leaving your most comfortable armchair.  Meanwhile, we learn that he has lost his 12-year-old son to a random shooting and his wife finds it too depressing to live with him. Then Macon meets Muriel while picking up his dog and she's about to shake up his entire belief system.

By the way, this is one book that its movie counterpart is just as good, so if you don't have time for the book, at least see the movie.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 84 reviews


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About the Author:

Anne TylerAnne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. At 19, she graduated from Duke University where she twice won the Anne Flexnor Award for creative writing.  She went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University.  Tyler wrote her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes at the age of 22.  Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She and her husband, Dr. Taghi Modarressi, raised two daughters now in their thirties. Her husband, who died in 1997, had been a faculty member at the University of Maryland and an author. As do the characters and businesses she invents, she lives in Baltimore, MD.

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