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52 Book #18: The Story of a Marriage

May 6, 2011

It’s 1953. Young married couple Pearlie and Holland Cook are making their quiet way in the world together, keeping one eye on the Rosenbergs’ trial and another on their son, who has recovered from polio but walks with braces. It’s a nostalgic period setup familiar from Mad Men without, at the start, that programme’s slightly knowing sense of characters rebelling against (what the modern viewer sees as) the strictures of the  setting: all milkshakes, the Korean war, racial segregation. What changes this story is the arrival of Buzz Drumer, who knows Holland from fighting alongside him in the war. He’s come to tell Pearlie a secret, and he’s come to take Holland away.

I had the ending of Andrew Sean Greer’s 2008 novel The Story of a Marriage (Faber) spoiled for me, quite innocently, before I even bought it; in fact I picked it up on the basis of the spoiler. It’s going to be impossible to write about the book without revealing the nature of the twist — be warned.

The spoiler isn’t that these are two men in love, nor even (though it’s set up as one, revealed in the last paragraph of the first of four chapters) that the Cooks are a black couple. The spoiler is that, after Buzz sets about convincing Pearlie of the ‘rightness’ of his and Holland’s relationship, shows her what the money he’s offering in exchange for her husband could mean for her life and for her son’s life, Holland decides — quite unexpectedly — to stay with his wife. ‘We think we know the ones we love’ runs the tagline on the (hideous, namby) cover and the phrase recurs throughout the text: it’s the line that narrator Pearlie uses to castigate herself and to justify Holland’s apparent decision to go away with Buzz; in the end it’s the fulcrum for the twist. Buzz has come back for his lover, but that love has changed in his absence, and he doesn’t know Holland’s wishes as well as he claims.

The Story of a Marriage is a slim book with lots going on. The background of the Korean war is important, but I felt the incorporation of the Rosenberg trial as another parallel illustrative strand — husband and wife’s betrayal — overegged the historical pudding a little. Likewise, while Greer’s decision to ‘crosswrite’ twice over — devising a black woman’s first-person narrative — is worthy of salute, I wasn’t sure quite how much the racial aspect added (other than the occasional added frisson as Pearlie wonders how onlookers must view her talking intimately with (white) Buzz Drumer). And a subtle parallel narrative belies the title, as we see also the marriage of one of Holland’s two elderly aunts, to a childhood sweetheart who’s waited decades to marry her, to the surprise and disgust of his adult daughter. ‘We think we know the ones we love.’

There’s a major problem here, however, and it’s one that runs through the whole novel: we’re privy to Pearlie’s innermost thoughts, and through her, to Buzz’s persuasive arguments that she give up her husband. We also see his story, which isn’t the story of a war hero but of a conscientious objector turned subject of a brutal Army ‘experiment’ designed to determine what the most economical way is to bring starving war victims back to full health — this is truly horrible, moving and eye-opening stuff. We don’t, however, have anything like the same access to Holland Cook. Once Buzz makes his more-or-less indecent proposal and Pearlie is left to mull it over, she inexplicably fails to talk it over much with Holland, who disappears from the novel to make way for the Pearlie and Buzz show (I wished much of the time for more sensible names; the one who gets off lightest is Lyle, the Cooks’ pet dog) and for Pearlie’s musings on war, history, race et al. When Holland does appear in a scene it’s almost a surprise, so completely has his input been sidelined. This means the book’s central dilemma rests on very shaky foundations, not to mention the circular logic of trying to prove  ‘you can’t know your loved one’ by simply denying us the chance to get to know this man.

This was the other spoiler I had: Greer evidently had great trouble deciding what the ‘truest’ ending for The Story of a Marriage should be. What should Holland’s decision be? What is most in-character? The emotional clout the ending should have, as Pearlie wakes on the morning her husband should have left with Buzz but instead finds himself in the kitchen just as normal, is invalidated by the sense that this decision is pretty arbitrary, a whim; it’s even left to Pearlie to try to deduce the reasons behind it. The fifties-era staples we might expect — husbands and wives at odds, never able to properly express themselves to one another — are pleasingly sidestepped in a book where Pearlie and Buzz  share dreams, fall into and out of friendship, plot fiendish schemes together: while it may be somewhat Greer’s point that it’s entirely because they aren’t married that they can achieve this level of intimacy, it leaves this book feeling hollow (Holland’s name even echoes this). Gorgeously written and psychologically acute, this is nonetheless a deeply unsatisfying novel.

Other reading in Week #18:

F. Scott Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise (Penguin Viking)

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