Chronically mismatched

They were the perfect couple, except that they couldn't stand each other.

Anne Tyler has run so much water over the elements of her quirky Baltimore families that she risks becoming the high priestess of homeopathic fiction. Now, with "The Amateur Marriage," the bittersweet perception that infused her earlier work is so attenuated that only the most faithful fans will be able to taste it.

Knopf is planning an enormous 300,000 copy first printing - something like opening a movie in 4,000 theaters - but "The Amateur Marriage" shouldn't be anyone's first experience with Tyler's work. It has to be enjoyed in the nostalgic glow of older classics like "St. Maybe," "The Accidental Tourist," and "Breathing Lessons." Indeed, the novel's elliptical structure encourages readers to fill in important scenes themselves, preferably by remembering how gracefully Tyler used to do that heavy lifting for us.

The story opens with one of those legendary encounters that sets a dozen lives in new directions. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor, and the streets of this Polish neighborhood in Baltimore are filled with young men eager to enlist, when a group of girls brings Pauline into Mrs. Anton's little grocery store for a bandage. In that moment, her son, Michael, is smitten.

Tyler displays all her usual skill with the tragic comedy of this relationship. Pauline's control over her bland, young boyfriend is complicated by Michael's slavish devotion to his charm-free mother. He can't tell her that he and Pauline are dating, or that Pauline has motivated him to enlist, or that they're getting married. But Pauline can tell everyone everything. "Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. She was brimming with energy - a floor-pacer, a foot-jiggler, a finger-drummer - while he was slow and plodding and secretly somewhat lazy."

From the start, their romance is pocked with bitter quarrels "that simply materialized, developing less from something they said than from who they were, by nature." Pauline's anger blows up frequently, but in the process blows away. Michael, on the other hand, clutches his wrath to him and nurses it till it grows to lethal intensity. Soon Michael is asking himself, "Was it possible to dislike your own wife?" And Pauline is wondering if "all wives believe they had chosen the wrong course."

So, to review, she's the passionate wife who wants to talk about her feelings, and he's the quiet husband who keeps his emotions bottled up, and together they move through a series of arguments lifted from a cover story in Redbook magazine.

Yes, that's unfair: A story about good friends who "never should have married each other" can have value no matter how common that situation is, and surely "The Amateur Marriage" sometimes produces intimate touches of personal agony as light and indelible as smoke. But too often, it fails to rise above the stereotypes that inform its premise, and the whole thing trudges along, without even the usual touches of quirkiness that individualize the families in Tyler's best fiction.

This problem grows more pressing in subsequent chapters. Pauline and Michael raise three unhappy children in the '60s. Two of them try to maintain peace in the family; the third one rebels against her parents' uptight, suburban culture.

Pauline and Michael "didn't know what to do. They felt they were in way over their heads." So, they blame each other. "There's no need for melodrama," he tells her. "Well, at least I'm not a block of wood, like some others I could name," Pauline responds. And then Tyler writes, "And so on, and so on, and so on," as though to admit that she finds all this just as thread worn as we do.

Unfortunately, the book's structure, the way it jumps over complicated years of development in these characters' lives, leaves us with a lot of "and so on, and so on, and so on." The night of their 30th wedding anniversary, for instance, Michael sums up the missing years in a way that flattens them into sitcom clichés: "All this shouting and weeping and carrying on, stalking off, slamming doors, kicking furniture, throwing my clothes out the window, locking me out of the house...." After another eight-year jump, Tyler brings us up to speed by telling us that life is "preferable to how it used to be, of course (the tears and recriminations, the clatter of slammed-down receivers)." This is storytelling by number.

Fuming alone one night, rehearsing Michael's flaws, Pauline thinks that "she could read him like a book." But that's the problem: We all can, and it's a book we've read many times before.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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