Painfully accurate and painfully funny as ever, Tyler’s 16th novel (Back When We Were Grownups, 2001, etc.) traces the stormy union of two people who love but can’t stand each other.
Pauline bursts into Michael Anton’s grocery store in December 1941, a bloody handkerchief pressed to the temple she wounded while impulsively jumping off a Baltimore streetcar to join an enlistment parade. In no time flat, she’s persuaded Michael to join up, and they’re married right after he’s discharged. Three children arrive in short order, but it’s not long before Michael is wondering, “Was it possible to dislike your own wife?” They’re simply not good match: “Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter while Michael proceeded deliberately . . . . Pauline believed that marriage was an interweaving of souls, while Michael viewed it as two people traveling side by side but separately.” She sweeps him off to the suburbs and eventually gets him to move the family grocery store out there too; Michael always ends up doing what she wants while quietly resenting her moods, her enthusiasms, her recklessness. Pauline in turn is infuriated by “his rigidity, his caution, his literal-mindedness . . . his stodginess in bed, his magical ability to make her seem hysterical.” Tyler beautifully delineates both spouses’ perspectives throughout her episodic narrative, which drops in on the highlights of the Anton’s 30-year marriage and the 20-year aftermath of their divorce. (A good technique, except for the terrible mistake of having the story’s most vivid character die offstage.) Flashes of tenderness and genuine love serve to underscore the sad fact that they simply aren’t suited, and cogent portraits of their children reveal the emotional damage they inflicted. Alive as always to life’s messy ambiguities, Tyler declines to reach a final conclusion about this “amateur marriage,” closing with a lovely image of Pauline’s face lighting up with joy as her husband approaches—but it’s just in Michael’s imagination.
So smart, so sensitive, so readable and engaging. Is it churlish to suggest that an author obviously at the peak of her powers should broaden her horizons and push herself a little harder the next time out?