The Story of a Marriage
by Andrew Sean Greer
All That We See or Seem, Is But a Dream within a Dream
A review by Danielle Marshall
With an amazingly deft hand, Andrew Sean Greer has pulled back the seemingly blissful curtain enshrouding the1950s, the poodle skirts and happy days, and set his love story in the conflicted class, racial, and sexual constraints of post-WWII California. The Story of a Marriage is a carefully crafted novel, reminiscent of poetry, with each word beautifully strung on a necklace of pearlescent prose. As our aptly named narrator Pearlie unravels the mysteries in her marriage, Greer illustrates how elusive relationships can be.
Pearlie marries her childhood sweetheart after a chance meeting when he returns from the war. Both Kentucky expatriates living in San Francisco, Pearlie encounters Holland Cook sitting on the foggy ocean beach.
"The wind stopped, as if, like Holland, it did not recognize me," Pearlie recants.
"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."
This encounter sets into motion a series of events with an air of foreboding doom. When warned by Holland's doting aunts that he has a "crooked heart," Pearlie takes on the task of protecting him from the slings and arrows of the world, even going so far as to clip the sad and disturbing news from the paper each day. She keeps a quiet and peaceful home, with a barkless dog, a well-behaved son (who develops a case of polio, and Pearlie handles it with careful calm, further protecting Holland from trauma), and separate bedrooms so as not to disturb Holland's sleep.
When a knock on the door brings a stranger, Holland's former boss Charles "Buzz" Drumer, into her home, the sense that some terrible secret is about to be revealed starts beating like a tell-tale heart. Edgar Allan Poe references abound in the novel, and the vigilant build of tension is reminiscent of his best work.
Pearlie observes Holland's shocked reaction to his old acquaintance's visit.
Holland stood very still, startled, hands open like a saint as his son and dog ran toward him. He was staring at Buzz. I watched as the look burned into something like contempt. Then he stared at me. For some reason he looked afraid.
As long-held secrets are revealed, all the layers of the illusion of a perfect life are peeled back; the devastating effect these secrets have on them, and their marriage, must be managed. And it's in that vacuum, the place of hurt, tempered with the strength to put another's happiness above your own, that the real beauty and tragedy of this story are revealed.
Andrew Sean Greer has crafted an inspired novel from a set of ingredients that novelists have been using forever: a setting in times of uncertainty and social change, a betrayal, a loss of innocence, a love story. But instead of a cliche, The Story of a Marriage feels magical and elegant. Since Greer's first collection of stories, How It Was for Me, published eight years ago, his skill with the written word has only matured and grown. And this, his fourth book, is one for the ages.