Saturday, October 27, 2018

Book Review: 'The Story of a Marriage: A Novel' by Andrew Sean Greer

Review by Susan Gardner
The Story of a Marriage: A Novel 
By Andrew Sean Greer 
Picador: New York 
April 2009 
$14.00 Paperback 
Published in hardback 2008 
208 pages

How could I possibly explain my marriage? Anyone watching a ship from land is no judge of its seaworthiness, for the vital part is always underwater. It can't be seen.
"At the time," writes the narrator, Pearlie Cook, "my sense was that marriage was like a hotel shower: you get the temperature right and someone just beyond the wall turns on his shower and you are stung with ice water, you adjust the heat only to hear him yelp from pain, he adjusts his, and so on until you reach a tepid compromise that both of you can endure."
The time -- the early '50s -- is replete with adjustments, not just about marriage, but in arrivals home from Korean War and shifts in changing roles in society. And nowhere are these adjustments more manifest than in the Sunset district of San Francisco, where Pearlie and her veteran husband, Holland, struggle to put down roots.
The Story of a Marriage, released in April of this year in paperback, received  mountains of praise and adulation when first published in hardback in spring of 2008, deservedly so.
The novel is a simple, straightforward story on the surface--part traditional love story, part near mystery--but the author layers intricate twists delicately into the plot, playing more often than not on readers' own assumptions about roles and characters. After a couple of unexpected turns, you learn to suspend expectations and predictions and ride with the flow of this beautiful, beautiful work, which features some of the most brilliantly crafted--yet simple--passages in any novel I've read in the past couple of years.
Example: When Holland confesses to Pearlie he thought about her for years while at war, she observes, simply: "How beautiful to find you once were someone's ghost."
Or take this passage:
We think we know them, the ones we love--for can't we see right through them? Can't we see their lungs and organs hanging like grapes under glass; their hearts pulsing right on cue; their brains flashing with thoughts we can so easily predict? But I could not predict my husband. Ever time I thought at last I'd seen to the bottom of him--he clouded over.
Or this, as she ponders, from the point of view of a woman, what it must be like to be a man (and then consider that a man is authoring this work, for a double reverse dose of awesomeness):
What is it like for men? Even now I can't tell you. To have to hold up the world and never show the strain. To pretend at every moment: pretend to be strong, and wise, and good, and faithful. But nobody is strong or wise or good or faithful, not really. It turns out everyone is faking it as best they can.
The novel's plot is full of well-timed surprises, as Pearlie gradually learns more about her husband's past--which she thought she was a part of--and even more about what she, herself, is capable of sacrificing for the sake of their son. Painstaking care is taken in describing the small details of every-day life, and of the heroics of those who keep things going and make the world comfortable for others. The richness of spirit embraced by the novel is rare, and puts it in a realm beyond a simple summer beach read, although the story is full enough of mystery to qualify as a good yarn on its own.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.