The Story of a Marriage
by Andrew Sean Greer
Published April 29, 2008
208 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
June 28, 2008
Also: Notes from book sale and signing, San Francisco Public Library main branch, Thursday, June 19, 2008 from 6:30–7:30 in the Latino/Hispanic Community Reading Room.
Andrew Sean Greer (born in 1970 in Washington, D.C., an identical twin) has written three novels that dare to flout the write-what-you-know exhortation and flying into the high-velocity headwind of rampant suspicion that anyone can write about kinds of people the author is not.
In The Story of a Marriage, his narrator is a housewife in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district (practically in the Pacific Ocean on Noriega and 47th Avenue—there is only one more avenue beyond 47th) during the early 1950s.
In a New York Times interview, Greer said that his previous novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, was “a conversation with myself about growing old and the nature of growing old, and, almost as an afterthought, about love.” The Story of a Marriage is mostly about love—an intense love that the older Pearlie Cook recalls for her beautiful, fragile and bisexual husband Holland, the intense love another (a man) had for him, and the very odd relation the two lovers had for the beloved (Holland).
Pearlie is philosophical rather than angry. More than any other novel I can think of, The Story of a Marriage has a thesis sentence at the very start: “We think we know the ones we love.” Pearlie continues:
“Our husbands, our wives… 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.”
In the rest of the book, Pearlie elaborates how and when this lesson was thrust upon her. Over the course of the relatively short novel, she recounts learning how little she knew about Holland, even though she and he lived in intense isolation à deux, first in the rural South, then in the burgeoning quasi-suburban ocean-edge of San Francisco.
Greer throws some surprises to readers who think they know more than Pearlie, and I don’t want to reveal anything at all about what Pearlier learned about her husband’s character and the past between their two bouts of isolation à deux. She knew the reason for the first of these and conceived both of them as protecting the delicate, beautiful Holland.
The prose of the book is beautiful. There are wonderful images and affecting repetitions. The topic/thesis sentence is repeated very tellingly. The unfolding of the plot is brilliant, and I was tempted to race through the book to find out what Pearlie learned and how she learned that there was so much she did not know but forced myself to slow down to savor the elegantly honed sentences.
I accept Pearlie as a credible character. Could someone unschooled compose such a memoir? Probably not, but the prose is so powerful and perfect that I was more than willing not to dwell on that.
I was also a bit skeptical that this character would follow the Rosenberg spy trials and rejected appeals so closely, but she is not particularly interested in the geopolitical consequences (the Soviet Union getting atomic bomb technology information). What interests her is Ethel sticking by her man—all the way to the electric chair. It is the devoted wife that interests Pearlie, not treason and espionage, etc. And how Pearlie should stand by her man is a puzzlement to her.
She also must look out for their polio-stricken child “Sonny.” When push comes to shove, she must protect the one most in need of protection (there’s no real question about who that is, though she sees both husband and son as fragile and in need of her protection).
At an appearance at the San Francisco Public Library main branch, Greer read for nearly half an hour beginning on page 14. Reading aloud slows the rush forward down, so that each sentence, each word can be savored. However, the first-person narration by a woman is more difficult when being read by the male author.
The audience members who asked questions were reading or had read the book. The first questioner remembered that Greer had said that while writing Max Tivoli, he read Lolita repeatedly—not for content or even style—but to see how Nabokov handled technical problems of narration.
Greer said that while writing The Story of a Marriage the book that he reread multiple times was Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. That book is for me the masterpiece of unreliable narration. Pearlie Cook is not as clueless about what she is recalling as the narrator of Ford’s great novel. I don’t think that she is unreliable, but she definitely withholds crucial information for the right moment—when it will have more impact.
He also said that he had reread Edith Wharton, especially The Age of Innocence, but also Ethan Frome. Again, these re-readings were not for content but for technique.
Someone else asked him whether his characters sometimes surprise him. He said that he did not have the feeling some writers have reported of the characters taking on a life of their own but added that he wrote two-thirds of the book from the perspective of a still-furious Pearlie, then rewrote it to consider everyone else’s perspective, including her innocent younger self.
As for character names, Greer said he went to a Kentucky graveyard (presumably near his story-telling grandmother), because he wanted names that already seemed old-fashioned in the early 1950s.
Someone else asked him if he reads reviews. He said that his agent only sends positive ones, shielding him, rather as the novel’s Pearlie shields Holland (she cuts stories that she thinks might upset him out of the daily morning paper, the San Francisco Chronicle). I had kept myself from asking about his reactions to John Updike’s (smarmy, homophobic, and ill-informed) review of The Story of a Marriage in the New Yorker, but it would have been impossible for Greer not to have found out about that review.
Updike published a very admiring review of The Confessions of Max Tivoli in the New Yorker, but he was markedly less enthusiastic about The Story of a Marriage. When I first read the review, I was puzzled by some carelessness about what is not in the realm of interpretation (referring to the narrator as Pearl though she is invariably Pearlie in the book; moving the couple out of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate). I rejected Updike’s judgment about the believability of the third person in the triangle and was vexed by the extent to which he gives away what should be surprises for readers. I was also puzzled that Updike (my favorite book by whom is Buchanan Dying, set firmly in the mid-19th century) had suddenly decided that fiction set in the past cannot be convincing.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli is set in a past not quite as distant as that of James Buchanan, but further back than the past that Pearlie recollects. (The present time of the narration is decades later than what Pearlie is remembering and explaining.)
Once the specter of Updike’s review (which praised Greer as a writer about love and its sorrows) came up, I wanted to ask Greer if he thought that the disbelief Updike expressed came from Updike being old enough to remember the early 1950s. I did not ask so leading a question, and was delighted that without any suggestion from the question, Greer suggested that Updike has his own view of what the early 1950s was like. I was happy to add that his 1950s experiences were surely unlike those of a dependent wife on the West Coast.
The final question that I remember was about incorporating materials from capital-H history. The impact on the characters of World War II and the Korean war (and the draft during both wars and on to that in the Vietnam war) is inescapable. I’ve already mentioned what it was about the execution of Ethel Rosenberg that commanded Pearlie’s attention. Greer said that it was tempting to include too much research. We don’t know we live in history,” he said. Or we don’t know what about the moments in which we live is going to seem capital-h Historical. [Ref]Fabrizio del Dongo, in the first part of The Charterhouse of Parma, knew that Waterloo was an important historical event, but in the midst of it he had no particular sense of how the battle was going.[/ref] Still, there are bits that can’t be resisted, such as an ad for the “bird in the hand” gloves that Pearlie receives as an early birthday present.
I not only recommend The Story of a Marriage but recommend making an effort to read it slowly. And I also recommend any personal appearances by Andrew Sean Greer, who is an engaging and generous speaker. I thought that he looked younger than he did when Max Tivoli was published, though I don’t think he is aging in reverse like Max was—and he looks older in my photos here than he looked in person.
The review was published on epinions, 21 June 2008; the rest was not previously published anywhere
©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray