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[522] The Story of A Marriage – Andrew Sean Greer

This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass. Not an ordinary story of men in battle but of those who did not go to war. The cowards and shirkers; who let an error keep them from their duty, those who saw it and hid, those who stood up and refused it; even those too young to know that one day they would rise and flee their own country, like my son would, when his time came to go to war. ” (Part IV, p.156)

In 1943, Pearlie and Holland are best friends who walk home from school and read to each other in Kentucky. On the eves of war, Pearlie helps Holland’s mother protect her son from the draft. When a medical emergency interferes with the plan, Holland ends up serving in the army, but is severely burned after his ship is sunk. Pearlie is recruited to work in a California factory where she will spy on her coworkers. Shortly after the war, Pearlie and Holland reunite in San Francisco. Against his aunts’ advisory, and despite the fact that she knows nothing about him, Pearlie marries him because he is the only boy who ever holds her hand and—he is too beautiful a man to lose.

What is it like for men? Even now I can’t tell you. To have to hold up the world and never show the stain. To protect 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. (Part IV, p.175)

So Paerlie finds herself married, being a dutiful wife who takes care of her frail husband, who is stricken by post traumatic stress disorder. In deference to his supposed fragility, she pampers him to the extent that she would cut out newspaper that might remind him of war. She is also devoted to her son who is afflicted with polio. Although they are the only black family in the Sunset district, where new houses are put up for returning soldiers and their families, she feels at home in this neighborhood that is separated from downtown by a mountain and a tunnel. But all seems relatively well until, in 1953, an elegantly dressed white man, with a broken nose and missing finger, rings at the door; he introduces himself as Buzz Drumer and, before long, tells her that he and Holland met in an army hospital and fell in love. Buzz has come to get his former lover back. A rich man, he offers to recompense Pearl if she conspires with him in his lovelorn plan to carry Holland off. She hates the idea, but she feels helpless. “It seems what binds one human to another is pain.,” (71) and “I did not know how to fight a white man; I was born without that muscle.” (73)

If, like the rest of us stepping toward the edge of thirty, he would figure out at last his heart’s desire . . . He was so used to being all things, pleasing all people. (Part II, p.108)

As Buzz insinuates into the family’s carefully managed existence, the novel takes on an increasing sense of foreboding. It settles in as a murky triangle and takes up the ambiguities of intimacy and bisexuality. Between divided loyalties and dangerous affections, a woman, one who always feels like she needs an extra armor to protect herself, perseveres in her duty as a wife and a mother. Heightened the predicament are complication of races and all the contemporary goings-on: Second World War, Korea, rationing, McCarthyism, homophobia, racial discrimination, war objectors—with which Greer sketches the background of the story. The Story of a Marriage is told in Pearl’s first-person narrative, in a voice with tense reserve and keen awareness. In her reflections, seasoned sentences often pass through her mind. Greer’s writing is simple and affecting, but his plotting doesn’t always live up to Pearl’s commentary, whose interests in silences, misunderstandings and people’s many-sideness, and indecisiveness, acquire a historical dimension.

195 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

11 Responses

  1. Somehow that is not what i thought this book was about. I’ve seen it a couple of times and never gone past the cover. I will now. Thanks for this review.

  2. This was a lovely book! The audio production was outstanding – hearing Pearl’s voice added an extra layer of enjoyment.

    • I love Pearl’s narrative. She supplies more than just the turmoiled voice of a housewife who was helpless about her husband’s bisexuality. She is a social commentary.

  3. I agree with James, I’ve seen the book around, but didn’t appreciate the plot – this is not the war book I thought it was. It sounds incredibly intense, and loaded with all kinds of things that would make for good discussion.

    • With all the historical details like I have mentioned in the review packed into a book just under 200 pages, I have the impression that it’s slightly overwritten. Interesting how I didn’t realize Pearl Cook is African American until about p.48 but Greer seems contrived to write a book about the doubly discrimination against African Americans and gays. The story is seen through Pearl so the homophobia part is not explored to the fullest extent. But you certainly feel the day-to-day tension and tension of a marriage.

  4. This book definitely sounds intense and intriguing! I might just pick it up myself!

    • I have seen this book for a long time because it never occurred to me to pick it up. The decision to read a book is always a moment in time. I was in the neighborhood that the novel is set and I thought the time has come to read The Story of a Marriage. It also intrigues me that the Sunset district now doesn’t have a substantial population of African Americans and that makes me question if there is a historical context that I don’t know about.

  5. The book is very good. Your tag of “African-American Literature’ has me thinking, though. Is it AA Lit because it features AA characters (who wouldn’t have been called AA at that time)? Is there any value to that category? Or is it in fact part of the problem?

    • The tags are more of my reference and reminder. At least to me any book that involves AA characters in a substantial plot can be categorized as such.

  6. […] that it makes me want to watch the film. Native San Francisco writer Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage is not a noteworthy read. Upon finishing it, I was both in awe of the sheer power of the story and […]

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