The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Andrew Sean Greer’s ornate, allegorical, and nearly universally praised second novel, proves a difficult act to follow, though The Story of a Marriage makes a sincere effort to do so. Like its predecessor, Greer’s third effort is an intelligent and generous expression of a deeply felt humanistic vision. But the ambitious tale, modeled in part on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is marred, significantly if not mortally, by the editorializing of a lugubrious narrator, strained emotional logic, and a flashback-laden narrative that is contrived if not manipulative.
Set in Northern California’s Bay Area in 1953, The Story of a Marriage is narrated by Pearlie, who looks back over many decades to a six-month period in her marriage to the handsome, complicated Holland Cook. The pair, high school sweethearts from Kentucky, are separated by World War II and reunited by chance on a San Francisco beach several years after it ends. They marry, move to a vine-covered cottage in a fog-swathed neighborhood adjacent to Golden Gate Park, and have a son known as Sonny.
These years, though often happy, are not an idyll for Holland and Pearlie. Sonny contracts polio. And Holland himself suffers from a mysterious condition: “Bad blood, a crooked heart . . . no cure for it,” his elderly aunts tell Pearlie, who comes to think of her husband’s heart “hanging over on his right side like a cherry” and dedicates herself to protecting him.
Then, one afternoon, a stranger calls on Pearlie—an attractive and elegantly dressed man named Buzz Drumer who reveals himself to be a friend of Holland’s from the war. The men effortlessly resume their relationship, and charming, generous, successful Buzz becomes a regular visitor to the Cook home, and a welcome one, until one evening when Holland is out of town, and his friend arrives unannounced with a proposition for Pearlie: Buzz requests help reuniting with a former romantic partner, with whom he is still deeply in love—Holland.
Fearing that the stigma of her husband’s homosexuality will adversely affect their son, Pearlie agrees to the terms Buzz offers: She will covertly facilitate Holland leaving her and going away with him, and in return he will pay her a hundred thousand dollars. (At this juncture, Greer also reveals that Pearlie, Holland, and Sonny are, in the idiom of the era, “colored,” or “Negro.” Since withholding this information doesn’t seem to have served any other purpose, it appears Greer’s narrative ploy—which involves some misdirection—is meant merely to call his readers’ attention to their assumptions about his characters’ races.)
Pearlie takes tiny, halting steps to set in motion convoluted mechanisms for removing a flimsy, implausible obstacle to Holland’s elopement with Buzz—an affair the former is conducting with his white employer’s daughter. (Wait, isn’t he gay?) The source of Pearlie’s ambivalence, we are told, is her burning, abiding passion for her husband. (Wait, if he’s not gay and she loves him so much, why is she cooperating with her rival?) Though her actions don’t bear this out, Pearlie insists, “To give up a marriage—someone unmarried might imagine it’s like giving up a seat in a theater, or sacrificing a trick in bridge. . . . But it is harsher than anyone could realize: a hot invisible fire, burning pieces of hope and fantasy, and charred bits of the past.”
OK. If you say so.
Indeed, we’re told a great deal about how much love and pain there is in Pearlie’s marriage, but much less often shown anything that illustrates this, makes it believable, provides any explicable motive or logic for her actions. Basically, Pearlie does a lot of telling. She favors extended metaphors. She verges, sometimes exquisitely and at others unhealthily, on the oracular. The novel opens with such a passage: “We think we know the ones we love. . . . But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know. We try to get past it to the original, the real husband or wife, but we never can. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?”
Later, observing her husband, Pearlie muses, “It must be some feature of human existence that we have all learned the magic trick, which is to place the gleaming coin on the heartline of your hand, close it in a fist, and—presto!—a moment later the fingers open on a barren palm; where has it gone? It’s a child’s trick; everyone learns it, and how sad that we never guess, and go marry a girl or boy who shows us an empty palm; when of course it’s there in the crease of their thumb, the thing they want no one to see: the heart’s desire.”
This would all be well and good, even gorgeous, were it leavened and rendered real by a plain old-fashioned scene in which somebody hands somebody else a piece of buttered toast or somebody reads a letter or whatever—but such things happen too infrequently.
Greer is an almost obscenely gifted and skilled writer, but he seems to have fallen into a trap laid by his own book: a story, told. His narrator, not just unreliable but problematically inconsistent, insists on explaining almost everything, on telling us the story the way an unthinking companion might insist on describing the view out her window. It doesn’t matter how lovely the view is, or how insightful the companion, or how passionate her description. Readers might desire that she move over just a little, so we can have a look and see for ourselves.
Darcy Cosper is a frequent contributor to Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, and Time Out New York.