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.
Read an Excerpt
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.