The Story of a Marriage

The Story of a Marriage

3.4 22
by Andrew Sean Greer

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From the bestselling author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a love story full of secrets and astonishments set in 1950s San Francisco

“We think we know the ones we love.” So Pearlie Cook begins her indirect and devastating exploration of the mystery at the heart of every relationship, how we can ever truly know another person.

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From the bestselling author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a love story full of secrets and astonishments set in 1950s San Francisco

“We think we know the ones we love.” So Pearlie Cook begins her indirect and devastating exploration of the mystery at the heart of every relationship, how we can ever truly know another person.

It is 1953 and Pearlie, a dutiful housewife, finds herself living in the Sunset district of San Francisco, caring not only for her husband’s fragile health but also for her son, who is afflicted with polio. Then, one Saturday morning, a stranger appears on her doorstep and everything changes. All the certainties by which Pearlie has lived are thrown into doubt. Does she know her husband at all? And what does the stranger want in return for his offer of $100,000? For six months in 1953, young Pearlie Cook struggles to understand the world around her, most especially her husband, Holland.

Pearlie’s story is a meditation not only on love but also on the effects of war—with one war just over and another one in Korea coming to a close. Set in a climate of fear and repression—political, sexual, and racial—The Story of a Marriage portrays three people trapped by the confines of their era, and the desperate measures they are prepared to take to escape it. Lyrical and surprising, The Story of a Marriage looks back at a period that we tend to misremember as one of innocence and simplicity.

Like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Andrew Sean Greer’s novel is a narrative tour de force that confirms him as “one of the most talented writers around” (Michael Chabon).

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Editorial Reviews

Evan Hughes
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 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 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." --Evan Hughes

Evan Hughes has written for The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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We think we know the ones we love.

Our husbands, our wives. We know them—we are them, sometimes; when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions, their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them. We watch their tics of conversation, of driving and dressing, how they touch a sugar cube to their coffee and stare as it turns white to brown, then drop it, satisfied, into the cup. I watched my own husband do that every morning; I was a vigilant wife.

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?

One morning we awaken. Beside us, that familiar sleeping body in the bed: a new kind of stranger. For me, it came in 1953. That was when I stood in my house and saw a creature merely bewitched with my husband’s face.

Perhaps you cannot see a marriage. Like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the human eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it. That is how I think of it. That I must look at everything around it, all the hidden stories, the unseen parts, so that somewhere in the middle—turning like a dark star—it will reveal itself at last.

The story of how I met my husband; even that’s not simple. We met twice: once in our Kentucky hometown, and once on a beach in San Francisco. It was a joke for our whole marriage, that we were strangers twice.

I was a teenager when I fell in love with Holland Cook. We grew up in the same farming community, where there were plenty of boys to love—at that age I was like those Amazonian frogs, bright green, oozing emotion from every pore—but I caught no one’s eye. Other girls had boys falling over them, and although I did my hair just like them and ripped the trim off attic dresses and sewed it on my hems, it did no good. My skin began to feel like clothing I had outgrown; I saw myself as tall and gawky; and as no one ever told me I was beautiful—neither my mother nor my disapproving father—I decided that I must be plain.

So when a boy came along who actually met my eyes, who showed up along my walk from school and got himself invited in for a slice of bread, I didn’t know what to make of him. I could tell he wanted something. For some reason I thought it was help on his schoolwork, so I always went to great pains to hide my notebooks and not sit next to him in class; I wouldn’t be used like a crib sheet. But of course that wasn’t what he wanted; he was always good in school. He never said what he wanted, in fact, not in all the years I knew him, but you do not judge a man by what he says. You judge him by what he does, and one clear bright night in May when we walked by the strawberry patch, he held my hand all the way to Childress. That’s all it took, just the briefest touch, in those days when I wore my nerves outside my skin like lace. Of course I lost my heart.

I was there with Holland in World War Two. He loved that I “talked like a book” and not like any of the other girls, and when the time finally came for him to go into the army, I watched him step onto that bus and head to war. It was a lonely grief for a young girl.

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.

On the bus ride to California, I studied the mountains’ ascent into a line of clouds and saw where, as if set upon those clouds, even higher mountains loomed. I had never seen a sight like that in all my life. It was as if the world had been enchanted all along and no one told me.

As for the favor the man asked of me, it was perfectly simple: he just wanted me to write letters. About the girls around me in the shipyard and the planes and conversations I overheard, everyday rituals: what we ate, what I wore, what I saw. I laughed to think what good it would do him. Now I can only laugh at myself—the government must have been looking for suspicious activities, but he didn’t tell me that. He told me to pretend I was keeping a diary. I did my duty; I did it even when I left my first job to become a WAVE—only a few other girls from a community like mine—spreading Noxzema on our pimply faces, the girls’ rears shaking to the radio, getting used to Coke instead of rationed coffee and Chinese food instead of hamburgers. I sat there every night and tried to write it all down, but I found my own life lacking; it hardly seemed worth telling. Like so many people, I was deaf to my own stories. So I made them up.

My life wasn’t interesting to me, but I’d read books that were, and that is what I put down, with details stolen from Flaubert and Ford and Ferber, intrigues and sorrows and brief colorful joys: a beautiful work of fiction for my country held together with silence and lies. That is, it turns out, what holds a country together. I did my job well, in the handwriting my mother had taught me, tall and loyal and true, signed with the special slipknot P for Pearlie I invented at the age of nine, mailed to Mr. William Pinker, 62 Holly Street, Washington, D.C.

What did you do in the war, Grandma? I lied to my country, pretending to tattle on friends. I’m sure I was just one of thousands; I’m sure it was a clearinghouse for lonely hearts like me. Imagine the ad jingle: “Be a finker . . . for Mr. Pinker!”

Then the war ended, as did the factory work for women and our jobs as WAVEs. I had long since stopped writing my notes to Washington; there was so much else to worry about and I had my position doing piecework sewing to pay for meals. And one day, alone down by the ocean, I walked right by a sailor on a bench, sitting with his book facedown like a fig leaf on his lap, staring out to sea.

I knew very little about men, so I was startled to see such despair on his square handsome face. I knew him. The boy who’d held my hand all the way to Childress, whose heart I had, at least briefly, possessed. Holland Cook.

I said hello.

“Well hi there, Sarah, how’s the dog?” he said amiably. The wind stopped, as if, like Holland, it did not recognize me. Sarah was not my name.

We stayed there for a moment in the oyster-colored air, with his smile slowly sagging, my hand holding the flap of my coat to my throat, my bright kerchief tugging in the wind, and a sickness building in my stomach. I could have moved on; merely walked away so he would never know who I was. Just some strange girl fading into the fog.

But instead I said my name.

Then you recognized me, didn’t you, Holland? Your childhood sweetheart. Pearlie who’d read poetry to you, who’d taken piano lessons from your mother; that was the second time we met. A sudden memory of home, opening like a pop-up book. He chatted with me, he even made me laugh a little, and when I said I had no escort to the movies that Friday and asked if he would come, he paused a while before looking at me, saying quietly, “All right.”

I was shocked when he turned up at my rooming house. The low-watt bulbs revealed a weary man, hat in his hands, his skin a little ashen, his elegant necktie loosely knotted. He claimed, years later, that he couldn’t even remember what he or I wore that night: “Was it the green dress?” No, Holland; it was black roses on white; its pattern is framed and hung in my memory alongside our honeymoon wallpaper (pale green garlands). I thought he might be drunk; I was afraid he might collapse, but he smiled and offered his arm and after the film took me to a nice restaurant out in North Beach. At dinner, he hardly ate or spoke. He barely looked at me, or noticed the stares we got from other patrons; his own gaze was fixed on two cast-iron dogs that sat before the unlit fireplace. So after we had taken the streetcar to my corner, and it was time to say good night, I was surprised when he turned very quickly and kissed me on the mouth. An electric jolt of happiness passed through me. He stepped back, breathing quickly and buttoned his jacket to go. “I have to see a friend,” he told me sharply.

“Holland,” I said. He looked back at me as if I had jerked a string. “Holland,” I repeated. He waited. And then I said the right thing. It was the only time I ever did: “Let me take care of you.”

His deep eyes awakened. Did he think I meant to remind him of our time back in Kentucky, that I offered the soft threat of the past? A dark line appeared between his eyebrows.

He said, “You don’t know me, not really.”

I told him that didn’t matter, but what I meant was that he was wrong; I knew him, of course I knew all about him from that time in our constricting little hometown: the grass behind the schoolyard we used to poke with a stick, the path from Franklin to Childress cluttered with witch hazel and touch-me-nots and railroad vine, the ice shivering in a summer pitcher of his mother’s lemonade—the lost world that only I remembered. For here we were so far from home. The one we could never regain. Who could know him better than I?

I acted instinctively. All I wanted was to keep him there on the shining streetcar tracks. “Let me take care of you again.”

“You serious?” he asked.

“You know, Holland, I’ve never been kissed by any boy but you.”

“That ain’t true, it’s been years, Pearlie. So much has changed.”

“I haven’t changed.”

Immediately he took my shoulder and pressed his lips to mine.

Two months later, by those same cable-car tracks, he whispered: “Pearlie, I need you to marry me.” He told me that I didn’t really know his life, and of course he was right. Yet I married him. He was too beautiful a man to lose and I loved him.

Excerpted from The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Sean Greer. Published in April 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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What People are saying about this

Andrew Sean Greer, one of the most talented young writers of our time, has written a beautiful and moving tale of war, sacrifice, race, and motherhood. But ultimately, as with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, this is a book about love, and it is a marvel to watch Greer probe the mysteries of love to such a devastating effect. --Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns

This is a haunting book of breathtaking beauty and restraint. Greer's tone-perfect prose conjures an unforgettable woman who exists both within and somehow above the stifling class, racial, and sexual constraints of 1950s America -- and who must unravel the great mystery of her place within it. --Dave Eggers

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The Story of a Marriage 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the smartest books of the 21st century. Greer's use of imagery captivates the reader as Pearlie narrates the story of her marriage. He brilliantly compares war and love, the "gray" areas of life, and demonstrates that there is no black and white when it comes to love; for each person, love is an individual experience. A fabulous, thought provoking read with large universal truths about fighting for the one you love, the power of love, and the definition of marriage.
Melissa_W More than 1 year ago
Greer's book is a quiet, meditative reflection on marriage told through the eyes of Pearlie. She narrates the story so while she tells the "story" of her marriage to Holland you never fully hear Holland's version of the story; she is always told what Holland might be thinking or needing and never truly asks for herself. Because the novel is set in the 1950s of the Korean War, the McCarthy hearings, and the Rosenberg execution, real events also shape Pearlie's story and thoughts on her marriage. I won't pretend that I didn't figure out the central problem of the marriage in the first twenty pages but the beauty of the novel is reading Pearlie's reasoning and decision-making process. Of particular interest is Pearlie's fixation on Ethel Rosenberg and how Ethel is reflected in Pearlie's thoughts; the ramifications of silence and inaction are at the heart of Pearlie's story, too, and Pearlie has learned to find her voice and path at the end of the novel.
Anonymous 17 days ago
Beautiful, rhythmic prose. A time travel story that avoids cliche.
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DesignerReader More than 1 year ago
This book was a staff recommendation at a BN store. The staff person told me it was the best book she had ever read, so her hype may have affected my perception of this book. Greer has a way of revealing information in a way that leads to some surprises in the plot. However, I don't think the plot was shocking or satisfying enough to warrant my full endorsement. I think Greer has some potential as a writer, so I hope another novel follows, perhaps with an entirely different topic and set of characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a little hard to follow.
Julesanne More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It was well written and the characters were revealed as I read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
lucybele More than 1 year ago
"The Story of a Marriage" is a novel by Andrew Sean Greer based in the 1950's. This novel is about an African American woman, Pearlie, struggling to save her marriage, while trying to survive political, sexual, and racial repressions. After reading this novel I am sorry to say that I would not recommend this to other readers. The author had a great opportunity to make this a fantastic book considering the many details he came up with, but he failed to do the right things with them. He briefly mentioned certain appealing conflicts, he made parts of the novel confusing, and he failed to make the main conflict interesting. When I first considered reading this book I read the inside cover and I thought that this would be one of the most interesting books that I have read. The inside cover talked about Pearlie not knowing her husband, her son getting polio, and a stranger offering her $100,000; all of those things would have made a great book but he didn't go into detail. The biggest example of the author not going into detail would be Pearlie's son getting polio, he told us about it for about two sentences towards the beginning of the novel. After the author first mentioned Pearlie's son getting polio he briefly mentioned at any other time in the novel. Rarely do I read books on my own time but I was actually excited about reading this book because of what I read on the inside cover, but this book basically let me down. Another thing that frustrated me about this novel was how he transitioned between the present and the future. The story would be in the present tense, jump ten years into the future without any clue, and then jump back to the present. Those certain parts where he talked about the future, had me sitting there confused and having no idea what had just happened. In one part of the book Pearlie was remembering how her husband's mother hid him from the war, then it went immediately to her throwing away her eighteen year old son's draft card, but throughout most of the book he wasn't even ten yet. The author should have found a better way to go from the present to the future. The main conflict of the novel was that her husband's old love, Buzz, came back and wanted to get back into a relationship with him. Right away they went ahead and decide that Buzz was going to run away with her husband and in return she was going to receive $100,000. There was never a fight between Buzz and Pearlie; she never even fought for her husband. Throughout the whole book Pearlie and Buzz would meet and discuss him leaving with her husband and what he felt for him. The whole book was just plain boring and was never at any point interesting. The author briefly mentioned certain appealing conflicts, he made parts of the novel confusing, and he failed to make the main conflict interesting. This novel was absolutely boring and I would never recommend this book to anyone. The same author has written other great and popular books but this was not at all one of his better novels. I feel bad about saying this but I felt like this book was a complete waste of my time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
An unlikely story. So meditative and overly laden with metaphor as to become tedious.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Pearlie met Holland twice as strangers. The first time back home in Kentucky when he showed up to walk with her to school and could look the tall Pearlie eye to eye. Later after a Mr. Pinker persuaded Pearlie to come to California for employment writing letters to GIs fighting the Axis powers, they re-met on a Pacific beach. The second time around led to marriage although Holland is not quite the same health wise as he was before the war and has a child Sonny afflicted with polio.------------ In 1953 San Francisco, a stranger to Pearlie but Holland¿s former lover and boss Buzz Drumer arrives. At a time when the Americans are fighting another war on an Asian peninsular while the fear of communism permeates very segment of life, he makes a strange offer of $100,000. Holland wants to accept the terms while Pearlie is afraid. Her fears stem from the realization that her husband remains a stranger with his dark secrets as the appearance of Mr. Drumer proves.----------- Told by a continuingly stunned Pearlie, the surprising yet plausible disclosures seem to keep coming throughout this poignant historical novel that affirms regardless of relationships everyone has a part of them that remains a stranger to their significant other. The triangle that forms between the shocked Pearlie, the secretive Holland, and the stranger-not stranger Mr. Drumer make for a fabulous look at the early 1950s in which Andrew Sean Greer asserts that the ¿Happy Days¿ nostalgic innocence claimed by modern revisionists is untrue. The author subtly explores young health issues, post traumatic distress syndrome of returning veterans, racism, sexism, and being politically correct during the ¿I Like Ike¿ era.------------ Harriet Klausner
Alene More than 1 year ago
This pick was selected by my Book Club. What a POOR choice! The story was simply not plausible. The Story of a Marriage was a story about nothing, in my opinion that had any reality-based insight, character study, or plot. The idea that an African American woman from the South, who would venture west and become involved in any sense of the word(s) with a caucasion man, that her husband was alledgedly involved with is ludicrous. A bad, bad, bad story that in addition was poorly written.
theMightyB More than 1 year ago
I felt that the writing was too confusing. I didn't enjoy this book and would never have finished it if it weren't for my book club.