About the Monicas

Tessa Hadley

  • The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
    Chatto, 306 pp, £16.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 7011 7734 9

At the beginning of her short story ‘Jakarta’, Alice Munro describes two young women who choose a spot on a beach because it’s sheltered and because ‘they want to be out of sight of a group of women who use the beach every day. They call these women the Monicas.’ The Monicas have two or three or four children apiece; they build a temporary domestic encampment on the beach (‘diaper bags, picnic hampers, inflatable rafts and whales, toys, lotions’); and their conversation revolves around the cheapest place to buy meat, the uses of zinc ointment, soda’s superiority to baking powder. Sonje and Kath don’t want to belong to the Monicas. In their hiding place, Kath smokes defiantly while she breastfeeds, and they read (in a nicely understated twist of self-reference) short stories by Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence. Sonje has lost her job at the library because she’s suspected of ‘Communism’.

There is an honourable tradition in English language fiction – in women’s fiction particularly – of narrative engagement with characters who don’t fit in, can’t conform, won’t join the friendly club of ordinary expectations. It goes back to Modernist alienation, to Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys’s lonely outsiders; or even further back to Maggie Tulliver’s haircut and Jane Eyre’s sitting with her book between the curtains and the window.

Anne Tyler, however, writes with intelligent and unapologetic enthusiasm about the Monicas. The heroine of The Amateur Marriage, her 16th novel, is absolutely ordinary. When we first meet Pauline in 1941 she’s a sweet, pretty girl who works as a receptionist in her father’s realty office; she goes into Michael Anton’s grocery store in the East Baltimore Polish district because she’s cut her head jumping off a moving streetcar in her haste to follow the parade of boys hurrying to enlist after Pearl Harbor. Under pressure from Pauline and from a euphoric collective excitement, Michael enlists, too. Pauline isn’t the least bit disaffected, or sceptical, or a misfit, and the novel (or at least Pauline’s half of it) concerns what becomes of sweet, ordinary, pretty girls in the long falling away from the splendid moment of their youth.

Pauline’s most splendid moment is when she comes running in her red coat to see Michael off after he enlists; she’s late, ‘gasping and tousle-haired and flushed’. The lateness, the scattiness, the emotional drama turn out to be characteristic, and will make Michael miserable later in his marriage to her; but, on this day, they’re part of her poetry. She’s not splendid because she’s special, but because she’s the living embodiment of every poignant story about young love: not just the stories she’s telling herself, but the stories everybody else is telling about her (this first chapter is narrated through the collective awareness of the women of the Polish district; afterwards – after Michael and Pauline move their family out to the new suburbs – the narrative retreats into the third person). ‘She was holding out her arms, and Michael dropped his belongings and started running too, and when they collided he swooped her up so her feet completely left the ground. Everybody said "Ah” in one long, satisfied sigh.’

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