It’s December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor has galvanised the USA into action. As excitement fizzes on St Cassian St, a Polish neighbourhood in Baltimore, the young shopkeeper Michael Anton unexpectedly meets Pauline Barclay. This vivacious young woman in a red coat captures his heart immediately. Her wide-eyed admiration convinces him to sign up, alongside the other neighbourhood boys, leaving behind his widowed mother and heading into the world. When he returns, he and Pauline marry, with all the impulsiveness that has characterised their fledgling relationship. Marriage is what you do, after all, as a young couple in times of war. This novel follows the consequences of their decision across fifty years of challenge and change, both at home and in wider society. The ramifications of their hasty, imperfect match ripple out not only through their own lives but into those of their children and friends. It’s a moving, completely convincing tale of everyday life, teasing out its little joys and sorrows, and showing that, even in the face of great events, it’s the small dramas which shape our lives most powerfully.
No one expected Michael Anton to fall for Pauline Barclay. He’s stolid and self-contained, a man of plain and simple tastes. If anyone had ever imagined his future wife, they’d probably have predicted a good Polish girl from the local area, adept at making the unfussy food he enjoys, who’d have happily worked alongside him and his mother at the family store. But Pauline erupts into his life, bringing glamour and attention and the shimmering thrill of unpredictability; and he’s hooked. She, for her part, is flattered by his immediate interest and concern – and enjoys the romantic idea of being the sweetheart left at home, waiting for her patriotic soldier to return. Of course, once Michael does go off to train – to his mother’s distress – Pauline’s fervour falters ever so slightly. It’s so hard to keep up the letter-writing when there are parties to go to, and jitterbugs to learn, and exciting new soldiers to meet at the dance halls. But then Michael comes home, and once again she’s overcome by the charm of the image – how appealing it must look, her running down the road to meet him… And, by then, it’s really too late to back out of the course on which – poor, unpractised amateurs – they’ve set themselves.
Of course, Pauline has ambitions to change. She dislikes the cramped apartment over the shop where she’s expected to live with Michael and Michael’s mother. She has her eye on a better life: a new house, in one of the smart new neighbourhoods where young families sport in swimming pools and visit each other for dinner. As the 1940s shift into the 1950s, Pauline gets her way, and persuades Michael to swap the old-fashioned Polish life of St Cassian for a chic suburban dream. But cracks are already appearing at the edges. Before their marriage, Pauline’s impetuous temper was a fascination: a challenge, proof of her sensitivity and delicacy, something to be lovingly assuaged. But now Michael finds it trying: a constant dissatisfaction, a nit-picking, feverish self-centredness. And Pauline, who once felt reassured by his solid reliability, begins to chafe at his lack of adventure and imagination. As their relationship grows ever more strained and tempestuous, each of them wonders – how do others do this? Did we fail, somehow, to understand what to do? Why do others do so easily, so well, so properly, what we have only cobbled together?
He 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 amateurs’ parade.
And yet this isn’t just the story of one couple, one marriage, one family. The Antons act as a microcosm for the world changing around them: the tight-knit ethnic neighbourhoods of the war years giving way to more consumption and consumerism; the emergence of teenage culture; the gulf in lifestyle between parents and children in the 1960s and 1970s. Their troubled relationship with their eldest daughter Lindy becomes a leitmotif, overshadowing the family for decades. But will Michael and Pauline ever gain the expertise they long for?
Compassion and communication: that seems to be the key here. Tyler doesn’t judge her characters, but handles them with grace, despite all their flaws and shortcomings – these are people who are only flawed in the sense of being alive, of trying, no matter how misguidedly, to do things right. For me, the most tragic character was Pauline, who never quite manages either, despite ‘performing’ both. While Michael does, eventually, learn to grow, and Lindy follows dreams that take her far from suburbia, Pauline is the one who remains trapped in the life she has created for herself: fractious, restless and unfulfilled, never quite able to overcome the spirit of the impetuous girl in the red coat, who stumbled into a Polish grocery store so many years before. A gentle, wise, sad story about life in all its facets, and the way we sometimes fail without ever truly understanding why.