The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

2008. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Hardcover. 195 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Pearlie and her husband Holland live in the Sunset District of San Francisco with their young son.  It’s the early 1950’s, and Pearlie and Holland still have baggage from the war and from the choices they each made during the war.  When a man from Holland’s past named Buzz Drumer shows up at their doorstep, Pearlie will soon have to reexamine all that she thought she knew about her husband.

Review:

Domestic dramas about married couples do not generally stoke my interest, but my quest for San Francisco books available on my library’s bookshelves led me to give The Story of a Marriage a try.  With its 1950’s setting, the book reminded me slightly of the good film Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore.

The Story of a Marriage is told from Pearlie’s point of view in first-person – an older Pearlie, looking back on six months of her life in 1953.  She’s a tricky narrator, concealing much from the reader at the beginning and then playing out the whole truth in bits.  One revelation had me turning back pages to see the hints that I had missed, and to re-read passages that now had a new meaning to them.

With the excerpt below, I hope to capture how the writing drops hints about further layers to be revealed:

It never occurred to me that I could leave as well, not until a government man walked up to our house and asked for me by name. I tromped down in my faded sundress to find a very ruddy and clean-shaven man wearing a lapel pin of the Statue of Liberty in gold; I coveted it terribly. His name was Mr. Pinker.  He was the kind of man you were supposed to obey. He talked to me about jobs in California, how industries wanted strong women like me. His words – they were rips in a curtain, revealing a vista to a world I had never imagined before: airplanes, California; it was like agreeing to travel to another planet. After I thanked the man, he said, “Well then, as thanks you can do a favor for me.” To my young mind, it seemed like nothing special at all.

“Now that sounds like the first bright idea you ever had,” my father said when I mentioned leaving. I can’t find any memory in which he held my gaze as long as he did that day. I packed my bags and never saw Kentucky again.

p. 5

I liked Greer’s writing overall, such as the way that he worked in historical details such as Pearlie’s wartime job, lesser known aspects of World War II, and the Korean War, which is just lesser known, period.  I also liked the descriptions of places: Pearlie’s home, a dance floor called the Rose Bowl, Buzz’s factory.  I was surprised by how much I liked Greer’s depiction of Sonny, Pearlie and Holland’s little polio-stricken son.  Pearlie’s relationship with Sonny is not the main focus of the book, but their interactions comprise some of my favorite scenes.  A visit to the candy store comes to mind, and also just a totally-kid moment from Sonny when he complains at dinner that the pea on his plate is looking at him.

The parts of the novel that I often did not care for where Pearlie’s musings on marriage, the era and the ‘larger picture’ in general.  The first page was like this – and here’s an excerpt:

We think we know them. We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know.  We try to get past it to the original, but we never can. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?

Passages like that seem to be reaching for profundity, but sometimes sounded more like expanded versions of movie taglines.  I did like some of the musings, but I thought The Story of a Marriage was better when it stuck to the story and to concrete details and images.

I’m glad I read this novel.  I thought the revelation of some of the secrets was masterfully done.  I liked Pearlie as the main character most of the time, though I was disappointed by the last action she takes in the book, as I was greatly interested to see what would happen if she had chosen to do the opposite.  I’m doubtful that the novel will stick much in my head after time has passed, but I might be wrong.

Interesting fact: I heard in an audio interview of Greer that the book was inspired by something that actually happened to his grandmother, a story which she told the rest of the family late in her life.

Other reviews: (ooh, this was a very divisive book in the blogosphere)

Asylum – “The whole book feels like an exercise in overturning the reader’s expectations, and at times I could almost hear the pop of the cap of Greer’s pen as he sat back with a satisfied sigh at his own cleverness. Dammit, he is clever, but it sits uncomfortably with Pearlie’s heartfelt narrative and confused innocence.”

dovegreyreader – “… as I turned the final page I had one of those ‘this will be a memorable book’ moments. One of those books you know you will still recall with clarity and emotional accuracy years down the line.”

Eve’s Alexandria – “So that, yes, it is beautiful and tender; at the same time, it is also a litany of tired morals and gender cliches.  It has a terrible beginning – a disgracefully superficial first line: ‘We think we know the ones we love.’ – and a sweet, almost irresistible ending, with lots more of the terrible and irresistible in between.”

Linus’ Blanket – “The carefully exposed journey to the end result was a fraught and complicated stew of themes exploring guilt, responsibility, male authority and privilege and a few surprises that it would spoil the book to name.  It was also beautifully written and gorgeous in both language and imagery.”

For more praise and hate, here’s my plug for Fyrefly’s Book Blogs Search Engine, which is where I always start to find book reviews.

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8 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction

8 responses to “The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

  1. It’s been about a year since I read it, and it hasn’t stuck in my mind much. I do remember liking it more that I thought I would, though, as I don’t normally gravitate toward stories about marriages.

    • Yeah stories about marriages are not something I pick up either, unless there’s some other factor going toward it, such as in this case, the setting.

  2. I’ve got this in my TBR pile still, but a lot of what you say about it rings very true with what I remember thinking about Greer’s first book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which had some elements I really liked (the premise, the writing), and some that I really could have done without (the extensive musings without a clear theme).

    Also, thanks for plugging the search engine! 🙂

    • I looked up his earlier books after reading this one, and Max Tivoli has an interesting plot (though similar-sounding to Benjamin Button), but I’m not sufficiently impressed with this book to go run out and read another by him.

      Thanks for maintaining that search engine – I love using it. 🙂

  3. Wonderful reivew, Christy! In some ways the premise of the story reminds me of the graphic novel ‘A History of Violence’ by John Wagner. It is interesting that this was a very divisive book in the blogosphere. As they say ‘One can love it or one can hate it. But one can’t ignore it’ 🙂

    Thanks for providing the link to Fyrefly’s Book Blog search engine. It looks really wonderful!

    • I’ve seen the movie of A History of Violence and liked it. I hadn’t thought of the similarity of husbands with a mysterious past, though the secrets of each are quite different. And I’m glad I was able to point you to Fyrefly’s Book Blog search engine!

  4. Cathy Buckwalter

    I read this novel a few years ago and I haven’t forgotten it at all. I love this book. It is by no means superficial…it is real, honest, and in many ways it depicts how people were, and maybe still are today, unable to communicate who they truly are to those they love for fear of rejection, misunderstanding, or just unable to put into words their feelings or thoughts. I hope, wish, long for this book to become a classic. It is beautifully written, as opposed to what the other commentators say, and I understood it perfectly. One of the issues, among many, Mr. Greer is trying to depict is that of a gay and/or bi-sexual individual fearing being “found out” in a time and place that is not ready for him…contrary to the other commentators, this wonderful piece of literature is just fine!

    • It’s great to hear from a fan of the book! It’s funny how there can be such a spectrum of responses to a book. I still remember the description of the places in the novel, and the way that Greer paced his revelations about the characters. Thanks for stopping by!

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