"The Story of a Marriage"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 30, 2008)
"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."
"We think we know the ones we love," author Andrew Sean Geer says throughout this story of a love which begins during World War II and leads to marriage in 1949. Pearlie Ash meets her first love, Holland Cook, when they are teenagers in Kentucky. Time and distance separate them for a few years, and then, miraculously, they meet by accident in San Francisco a few years later. Within days they are married. Soon after, they have a child.
Settling in an old house in Ocean Beach, known as the Sunset district, outside San Francisco, they lead a quiet life, enjoying their child and their relationship. Pearlie is particularly solicitous of Holland who, according to his aunts, has "bad blood" and "a crooked heart," and she does whatever she can to keep him from becoming upset. "I silenced everything in myself that was not mild and good," she says.
Then, in 1953, a stranger arrives at Pearlie's door, claiming to be lost. Further questioning reveals that he is looking for Holland, someone the stranger, Charles "Buzz" Drumer, has known in the war. During the next six months, Buzz spends all his free time at the Cooks' house, but Pearlie is stunned when he suddenly offers her $100,000 to do something for him—nothing illegal, but so important to Buzz that he is willing to sell his business and give her the money if she will help him to accomplish his goals. As she begins to consider the offer and what it would mean for her future, the foundation of her marriage becomes shaky.
Greer has meticulously plotted a series of surprises which keep the reader off balance for the entire time span of the novel, and to describe more of the plot might inadvertently reveal one of them. Playing on the common assumptions readers make about characters and plot as the story's complications unfold, Greer systematically destroys all the reader's expectations, turns perceptions inside out, and keeps the dramatic tension at the highest level, right through to the resolution. Pearlie becomes a character we care about, a woman who wants only the best for her family but who is not always sure how to ensure their happiness. "What binds one human being to another is pain," Pearlie decides.
As Pearlie, Holland, and Buzz Drumer reveal their stories, the reader becomes privy to their hopes and dreams, and their fears and sorrows, and as time passes, the surprising revelations gradually feel "normal," or at least as "normal" as life can be in the years at the beginning of the Korean conflict. This is also the time of the Rosenberg trial, and Pearlie sees in Ethel Rosenberg a woman whose love for her husband will not allow her to betray him, even at the cost of her own life. Air raid drills and preparations for nuclear disaster become as symbolic as the Rosenbergs' trial in the story of this marriage, and Pearlie, like the mute dog which belongs to her son, is helpless to defend herself.
The careful plotting is enhanced by smooth prose, with not a word out of place, and irony underlies almost every scene. Greer's thoughtful observations about the nature of love and marriage add depth and gravity to this literary novel which some might otherwise call a "tour de force" because of its clever structure. Those who loved The Confessions of Max Tivoli may find this novel and its themes to be just as innovative and just as much fun to read and ponder.
- Amazon readers rating: from 71 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Story of a Marriage at publisher's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- How It Was for Me (2000)
- The Path of Minor Planets (2001)
- The Confessions of Max Tivoli (2004)
- The Story of a Marriage (2008)
- The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (June 2013)
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- Official website for Andrew Sean Greer
- The Elegant Variation interview with Andrew Sean Greer (2004)
- BookSlut review of The Confessions of Max Tivoli
- The New York Times review of The Confessions of Max Tivoli
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About the Author:
Andrew Sean Greer was born in Washington, DC, the son of two scientists. He studied writing at Brown University, where he was the Commencement Speaker at his own graduation. After years in New York working as a chauffeur, television extra and unsuccessful writer, he moved to Missoula, MT, where he received his MFA from the University of Montana. He soon moved to San Francisco and began to publish in magazines before releasing a collection of his stories.
His stories have appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and other national publications, and have been anthologized most recently in The Book of Other People and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is the recipient of the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Public Library.
Greer lives in San Francisco, California