Review 1718: Literary Wives! The Amateur Marriage

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

It’s December 7, 1941. Michael Anton is working in the family store in an Eastern European Baltimore neighborhood when Pauline comes in with some neighborhood girls. It’s apparent to everyone that he’s a goner. Excitement is in the streets because of that day’s declaration of war against Japan, and in the impulse of Pauline’s excitement, Michael enlists.

Michael is injured during training, so he never goes to war but instead marries Pauline. Michael is steady, perhaps a little stolid. Pauline is emotional, reacting to every little thing and often over-reacting. The Amateur Marriage follows what is really an ill-assorted couple through their marriage—children, deaths, family crises—and beyond.

Tyler is excellent in her minute observations of everyday life. She sees the cracks in the American dream and reveals them with empathy. I enjoyed this novel, although at times Pauline drove me crazy.

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

At first, I thought Tyler was going to show how this admittedly mismatched couple could still make a lasting marriage, but that turned out not to be the case. The couple come together almost completely by chance, and later, when we learn about Pauline’s previous dating career and her career while Michael is in the service, we realize that if Michael had gone to war, Pauline would almost certainly have found someone else before he got back.

In the beginning of the relationship, the chemistry between them works pretty well, even though they obviously go into marriage with different expectations. Michael, for example, believes they will continue to live above the store, while Pauline assumes they will buy a house in the suburbs even though they can’t afford one. Michael at first seems relatively unambitious, while it is Pauline’s ideas that push him to do better than his parents’ store. The difficulties come when the chemistry starts to wear off.

This novel depicts a couple a little older than my parents although more conservative. In fact, in many ways they resemble my parents, some in temperament and others generationally. However, frankly Pauline is sometimes so volatile that I don’t know how anyone could live with her. It seems as though someone more expressive than Michael would make her feel more secure but would be even more likely to fight with her. And some of the things she says when she’s upset, which in later years seems like all the time, are really nasty.

Although Tyler isn’t explicit about this, I can’t help thinking that a lot of Pauline’s unhappiness comes from the sterile suburban life that my mother also lived, because the Antons do eventually move to the suburbs. Theirs is a typical 50’s marriage, with Michael away working a lot and not as involved with his children as he could be, with Pauline taking all the responsibility for the house and child care.

Pauline, a social girl, is isolated in the suburbs except for neighborhood parties and gossip by the pool or visits back to the old neighborhood (which, however, was not her old neighborhood, but Michael’s). However, she also cultivates a helplessness that I found shocking, when later in life she can’t light her own pilot light or shovel her own driveway.

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Michael is a little more of a mystery because we don’t hear from him as often. He makes the same kind of mistakes as my father did, for example, buying practical gifts instead of frivolous or romantic ones. They fight about money, but he has had a careful immigrant upbringing of scrimping and saving, while hers has been more privileged—and she does seem to do some reckless spending.

I also felt this novel showed how people tend to concentrate on the negatives of their relationship when they’re at odds. It is only when things are long over that both Michael and Pauline begin to remember some of the things that brought them together in the first place.

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15 thoughts on “Review 1718: Literary Wives! The Amateur Marriage

  1. Naomi September 6, 2021 / 11:22 am

    I was surprised by the direction this book took, and that there was still so much book left after they separated. But it was a good way of showing how much they really do admire each other, even though they couldn’t stand being married. It was painful reading about how conflicted they were throughout their marriage – they wanted things to work but they just couldn’t do it.

    It’s interesting to hear how they compare to your parents!

    • whatmeread September 6, 2021 / 11:39 am

      Pauline was a bit more volatile than my mother, though. I think it would be difficult for anyone to live with her. I had to wonder how much this book reflects Tyler’s parents’ marriage, because Breathing Lessons resembles it a lot as well. I read one right after the other and couldn’t help noticing the comparisons.

      • Naomi September 6, 2021 / 3:08 pm

        I wonder if being paired with Michael brought Pauline’s “bad” side out more than if she had married someone more suitable.

      • whatmeread September 6, 2021 / 3:53 pm

        It’s hard to tell. In a way, it seems like it would be good for an excitable woman to be paired with someone who isn’t, but since she obviously was irritated by his attempts to calm her down, maybe not. She was really excitable to me, in fact, irritatingly so.

      • Naomi September 10, 2021 / 2:12 pm

        I can see that. I wonder if that’s connected to the fact that she never remarried?

      • whatmeread September 10, 2021 / 3:26 pm

        Oh, you think she gets more excitable as she’s older? I didn’t notice any difference. Maybe a little.

      • Naomi September 12, 2021 / 7:28 pm

        I just meant that maybe it was hard for her to find someone suitable to her personality. But I like Eva’s idea that she was enjoying her freedom!

      • whatmeread September 13, 2021 / 10:57 am

        Maybe so. At least she didn’t have to worry about what he thought about how much she spent on clothes.

      • Naomi September 13, 2021 / 3:53 pm

        Yeah, worrying about what your spouse will say about the money you spend is no fun.

    • whatmeread September 6, 2021 / 11:49 am

      I’ll check out your review!

  2. The Paperback Princess September 7, 2021 / 12:27 pm

    They definitely both focus on the negative aspects of their lives – I was surprised though that it was Michael that decided he didn’t need to live that way, that it had been hell for years.

    It’s funny how Michael seems to get away with so much more for being typical of his generation – he’s hardworking and so it’s fine. Pauline also works hard, and yes she gives money away to charity and gets irritated but I think it’s because she doesn’t feel seen. Which also fairly typical of the time!

    It was totally one of those novels of the small every day things and how they add up.

    • whatmeread September 7, 2021 / 5:25 pm

      Well, that may be a good point, but I think that she threw a fit about just about everything that happened, and that sort of wore me out as a reader, never mind someone who lived with her. I am sure she also was much more fun to live with than Michael at times.

      It did surprise me that Michael gave up first, though, if only because men much less often do except if they have other women lined up already. I’m not making a big generalization now, I read that somewhere as a result of some research. Sorry, I don’t remember where.

      • The Paperback Princess September 7, 2021 / 5:39 pm

        I agree with you about being surprised that Michael gave up first – they always seem much more willing to just keep going the way things are!

      • whatmeread September 7, 2021 / 5:51 pm

        Yes, it seems easier to keep the status quo than to deal with unhappiness.

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