We know who Anne Tyler is. The author of The Accidental Tourist is a quiet observer of the existential quagmire, the writer who returns again and again to the predicament of people who are trying not to rock the boat or, if they do, to set it back up quickly. The Amateur Marriage (Knopf; 306 pages) is another of those stories, though the wider world intrudes more prominently in this one than in most other Tyler novels, largely in the effect that war and social upheaval have on the life of an uneasily married couple.
In the days right after Pearl Harbor, Michael, the prudent son of a Baltimore, Md., grocer, meets the spirited Pauline, his opposite in most things. Just because opposites attract doesn't mean they attach--it's a lesson Tyler has taught before--and the link between these two is going bad even before they get to the altar. For the next 30 years or so, it's all touch and go.
"We were just...unskilled," is what Michael concludes, thinking back on their afflicted marriage. In its picture of a discontented family over the long arc of the years, this book can remind you of The Corrections without Jonathan Franzen's emotional knots. In its subplot of a daughter lost to the lures of the 1960s, it can bring to mind American Pastoral without Philip Roth's refining fires. Toward the end, Michael hears an old song on his car radio. "He liked the way the singer kept her voice so plain and ordinary," Tyler tells us, "too intent on expressing her sadness to concern herself with effect." That's the tone Tyler is generally after herself: limpid, understated, diminuendo. But the distance from there to becalmed isn't far. And this time she goes the distance. --R.L.