Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage has generated a lot of chatter in the blogosphere, and opinions are strong and varying. It seems like a simple enough story: Pearlie and Holland are a married couple in 1950s San Francisco. They’ve established a routine that is threatened when a secret comes to light and changes everything. But the writing, the plotting, and the story itself have elicited strong and varying reactions from readers.
My own opinion is mixed. The story unfolds beautifully, at a nice pace, and with plenty of twists and subversions of our expectations along the way. A few of the twists seemed manipulative, but they kept me reading. The fact that Pearlie, our narrator, withholds information at times actually fits into the book’s overall premise that needless sorrow ensues when people don’t share their thoughts openly. A big part of Pearlie’s problem is her own lack of openness with Holland, and vice versa. Still, at times Pearlie’s withholding of information just seemed like a way for Greer to say “gotcha” to the reader.
Pearlie herself is not an easy person to like. She’s always obliging, always giving; she’s arranged her home as a sanctuary, where Holland can avoid anything unpleasant, including the distressing news stories that she clips out of the paper before he gets to read it. She does this, not because Holland asks her to, but because she’s been told that he has “heart problems” and needs to be protected. Does Holland want this? We don’t know, and I wonder if Pearlie does. The few times Pearlie does seem to take action or to strive for independence, it’s still on her husband’s behalf and at the behest of another man. Are we supposed to sympathize with Pearlie and her efforts to please her husband? Or is Greer trying to show us what heartbreak comes from living in a society where people are socialized to never be entirely open? Is Pearlie’s docility part of her inherent nature or a product of her environment? As I said, she’s hard to like, although I do feel for her and wonder whether I would be so docile if I lived in her time.
A lot of reviewers have talked about the writing, which I found to be a mixed bag. There are some beautiful, evocative passages:
Oh he could dance, my Holland Cook; he had excelled as a boy and now, without having been taught a thing, could look around and pick up steps, and my great talent was to follow. It’s a trick young women these days can’t possibly know: how to follow. One hand at your waist, the middle finger pressing, the other hand clutching yours, communicating in little spasms of delight, none of them rehearsed, some of them so unexpected you come out of a twirl and laugh–because there he is, grinning at you sideways in some move he’s just filched from across the dance floor. He hadn’t talent exactly; like any dilettante, he invented nothing, perfected nothing. But he danced the only way a young man should: as if he wanted to woo me.
It’s lovely prose, and it reveals more about Pearlie’s relationship with her husband than even she realizes. But then there are the clunkers:
But I knew one thing: I knew silence, which like an exotic poison–odorless, tasteless–brings a subtle madness to the victim. I became half mad with fear and shame, now that my carefully constructed world had been tornado-torn from its foundations, the walls and windows hurled at me so that all I could do was crouch and wait for it to subside. My doubts, my questions; I stoppered them like moths in a killing jar. . . I still went about my day to the syncopated beating of a transposed heart, and my instincts were those of a nurse who discovers, late in her rounds, that her patients have fled in the night. Whose life shall she save now? Her own?
Parades of metaphors like the one above only served to distance me from Pearlie. It just smacks of artifice. It might have worked in the third person, but even then it would have felt like too much to me.
I think this book, which clocks in at just under 200 pages, would actually have made a very effective short story or even novella. Had Greer cut some of the fat, like the overdone descriptions, this could have been a tight little story with some lovely writing that really packed a punch.
I encourage others to check out some of the other reviews, particularly the ones at Asylum, dovegreyreader (including the comments), Lizzy’s Literary Life, and Eve’s Alexandria. I agree with many, but not all, of the points made in these reviews, and they give a pretty good sense of what the range of opinion is.