The Story of a Marriage

I face a challenge here: how to discuss a story that relies for its considerable drama on a series of startling revelations essential to its artistry. In Andrew Sean Greer’s new novel, the clues planted along the way are subtle enough that even a careful reader is likely to be caught off guard. Count me among the surprised, several times over. The opening line of the book is a seemingly shopworn sentiment: “We think we know the ones we love.” That Pearlie Cook, the speaker of this line and the narrator of the novel, will turn out not to have truly known her husband is plain from the first page. The extent of her misapprehensions and their effect on the relationship form the basis of the novel’s carefully cultivated suspense.

Pearlie, a dutiful, nurturing, and “vigilant” housewife, is looking back at many years’ remove on her courtship and marriage to a man named Holland Cook. The action takes place primarily in San Francisco, in 1953, and World War II and Korea form an ever-present backdrop to the story, such that “a soft burring noise that sounded like a warplane nosing its way through the clouds?was just someone mowing his lawn.”

Pearlie first fell for Holland at 18, when she helped hide him from the draft during World War II until he was discovered, and then met him again by chance at 21, finding him a changed person after his time in the service. She loves him anyway, and despite the objections of one of Holland’s aunts, they soon marry.

Holland is a handsome and caring husband and father — the couple have a son, stricken with polio — but Greer allows us to see him as something of a hollow man, a mystery to those around him. He nevertheless remains in essence the center of the story, the other characters surrounding and encircling him, as if in traveling in orbit, willingly or not. Told that he suffers from “bad blood, a crooked heart,” Pearlie creates a home for Holland as free as possible from noise and disquiet. She buys a dog that cannot bark, and, in a poignant touch, she clips all the bad news out of the newspaper before he comes home from work to read it. But she can’t prevent the arrival of a stranger called Buzz Drumer, also scarred by wartime, who brings with him unwelcome truths and, after a period of ingratiation, an outlandish request for help.

In Greer’s widely praised last novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, he also artfully unspooled the narrative by creating a series of nagging questions without ready answers. That tale, set in the late 19th and early 20th century, succeeded in its re-creation of a specific social milieu, and here again in The Story of a Marriage, Greer assuredly evokes another era — a time of “Negro” sections at diners, soap box derbies, air raid drills, the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, and the steady and profound fear of war.

Max Tivoli relied on a gimmicky central conceit: the hero ages backward physically while aging psychologically in the conventional way; Max is not only a freak of nature but of authorial will. The Story of a Marriage is more closely allied to realism, and we come to know Pearlie as a more recognizable kind of outsider in a society deeply wary of otherness. Pearlie is a more accessible character than Max, as Greer convincingly inhabits a woman’s voice. Exiled even from the workings of her husband’s mind, Pearlie is forced to look on as others have the sensation “of naming your desire and feeling the right to possess it.” In Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage both, Greer places his characters in very unusual and pained circumstances, but through them he adroitly dramatizes the universal experience and disappointments of growing older — becoming, in Max’s words, “a widow to my own hopes,” and in Pearlie’s, “an immigrant from that vanished land: my youth.”

If this insight into character is among his strengths, Greer’s chief weakness is a tendency is to indulge in extended ruminations — on, say, the nature of time or love — in which he seems to have fallen for his own prose. His writing can take on a purplish color that frustrates our desire to be drawn in by the surprising and satisfying turns of his storytelling. This is especially true in The Confessions of Max Tivoli, where the protagonist’s thwarted, burning desires are at times overwrought, but in The Story of a Marriage, too, there are trite observations like “Perhaps love is a minor madness” and narrative intrusions like this one: “How do you make someone love you? For the very young, there can be nothing harder in the world. You may try as hard as you like: place yourself beside them, cook their favorite food, bring them wine or sing the love songs that you know will move them. They will not move them.”

The Story of a Marriage, though, is a slim work of genuine originality whose uniqueness rests in large part on information I would rather not share. What can be said is that when Greer doesn’t overreach, the novel provides more than its share of lovely writing: “The driver struck a match and we were briefly bathed in that warm light before he touched it, gently, to his cigarette and then, when that was lit, thermometer-shook the match to darkness, leaving only a smoky question mark.” More crucially, Greer deftly portrays characters whose true selves are hidden beneath opaque facades, and creates a tale of disorienting and almost painful moral vertigo. The Story of Marriage conveys, with great sensitivity, the sting of coming to “see our lives as a fiction we have written and believed.”