Books March 2004

Life Sentence

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In this story of two good people who make each other miserable, Tyler eschews her stock of whimsical oddballs and instead brings her famed empathy to bear on strikingly realistic characters. The union of Pauline and Michael Anton—she so impulsive, he so careful—is that of the Morans of Breathing Lessons in a minor key. They marry during World War II because she looks pretty in a red coat and he's adept with a bandage, and in this ill-advised romanticism they are no different from lots of happy couples—except that Pauline and Michael can't stop, as Michael sees it, a "constant elbowing and competing, jockeying for position, glorying in I-told-you-so." By shifting point of view between the two, Tyler manages the immensely tricky feat of exposing their unpleasantness to each other while making them both likeable to the reader. If only he'd shrug off her hasty words and cherish her vitality! If only she wouldn't indulge her every emotion and would treasure his unswerving decency! But Tyler won't let people behave out of character; Michael and Pauline remain stubbornly true to themselves, though we all would be happier otherwise. In her deliberate, unadorned, butter-smooth prose, unwrapping a telling moment here and there, Tyler works through sixty years, time enough for rending events to become part of the fabric of life. Crises are overwhelmed in the end by personality, ever the focus of her brilliance. The jacket blurb claims that the book shows the consequences of a bad marriage; but although it's clear why the characters might behave as they do, nothing here, as in most of real life, feels ineluctable. It's not why they do but, rather, how they respond once the deed is done that interests Tyler. And as always, the people she cares about are those who care profoundly and unshakably, no matter what happens, about others.

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