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The Story of a Marriage: A Novel

The Story of a Marriage: A Novel

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The Story of a Marriage: A Novel

4/5 (50 ratings)
230 pages
4 hours
Apr 29, 2008


A Today Show Summer Reads Pick

A Washington Post Book of the Year

"We think we know the ones we love." So Pearlie Cook begins her indirect, and devastating exploration of the mystery at the heart of every relationship--how we can ever truly know another person.

It is 1953 and Pearlie, a dutiful young housewife, finds herself living in the Sunset District in San Francisco, caring not only for her husband's fragile health, but also for her son, who is afflicted with polio. Then, one Saturday morning, a stranger appears on her doorstep, and everything changes. Lyrical, and surprising, The Story of a Marriage is, in the words of Khaled Housseini, "a book about love, and it is a marvel to watch Greer probe the mysteries of love to such devastating effect."

Apr 29, 2008

About the author

Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was a Today book club selection and received a California Book Award. He lives in San Francisco.

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The Story of a Marriage - Andrew Sean Greer


We think we know the ones we love.

Our husbands, our wives. We know them—we are them, sometimes; when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions, their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them. We watch their tics of conversation, of driving and dressing, how they touch a sugar cube to their coffee and stare as it turns white to brown, then drop it, satisfied, into the cup. I watched my own husband do that every morning; I was a vigilant wife.

We think we know them. 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. We try to get past it to the original, but we never can. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?

One morning we awaken. Beside us, that familiar sleeping body in the bed: a new kind of stranger. For me, it came in 1953. That was when I stood in my house and saw a creature merely bewitched with my husband’s face.

Perhaps you cannot see a marriage. Like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the human eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it. That is how I think of it. That I must look at everything around it, all the hidden stories, the unseen parts, so that somewhere in the middle—turning like a dark star—it will reveal itself at last.

The story of how I met my husband; even that’s not simple. We met twice: once in our Kentucky hometown, and once on a beach in San Francisco. It was a joke for our whole marriage, that we were strangers twice.

I was a teenager when I fell in love with Holland Cook. We grew up in the same farming community, where there were plenty of boys to love—at that age I was like those Amazonian frogs, bright green, oozing emotion from every pore—but I caught no one’s eye. Other girls had boys falling over them, and although I did my hair just like them and ripped the trim off attic dresses and sewed it on my hems, it did no good. My skin began to feel like clothing I had outgrown; I saw myself as tall and gawky; and as no one ever told me I was beautiful—neither my mother nor my disapproving father—I decided that I must be plain.

So when a boy came along who actually met my eyes, who showed up along my walk from school and got himself invited in for a slice of bread, I didn’t know what to make of him. I could tell he wanted something. For some reason I thought it was help on his schoolwork, so I always went to great pains to hide my notebooks and not sit next to him in class; I wouldn’t be used like a crib sheet. But of course that wasn’t what he wanted; he was always good in school. He never said what he wanted, in fact, not in all the years I knew him, but you do not judge a man by what he says. You judge him by what he does, and one clear bright night in May when we walked by the strawberry patch, he held my hand all the way to Childress. That’s all it took, just the briefest touch, in those days when I wore my nerves outside my skin like lace. Of course I lost my heart.

I was there with Holland in World War Two. He loved that I talked like a book and not like any of the other girls, and when the time finally came for him to go into the army, I watched him step onto that bus and head to war. It was a lonely grief for a young girl.

It never occurred to me that I could leave as well, not until a government man walked up to our house and asked for me by name. I tromped down in my faded sundress to find a very ruddy and clean-shaven man wearing a lapel pin of the Statue of Liberty in gold; I coveted it terribly. His name was Mr. Pinker. He was the kind of man you were supposed to obey. He talked to me about jobs in California, how industries wanted strong women like me. His words—they were rips in a curtain, revealing a vista to a world I had never imagined before: airplanes, California; it was like agreeing to travel to another planet. After I thanked the man, he said, Well then, as thanks you can do a favor for me. To my young mind, it seemed like nothing special at all.

"Now that sounds like the first bright idea you ever had," my father said when I mentioned leaving. I can’t find any memory in which he held my gaze as long as he did that day. I packed my bags and never saw Kentucky again.

On the bus ride to California, I studied the mountains’ ascent into a line of clouds and saw where, as if set upon those clouds, even higher mountains loomed. I had never seen a sight like that in all my life. It was as if the world had been enchanted all along and no one told me.

As for the favor the man asked of me, it was perfectly simple: he just wanted me to write letters. About the girls around me in the shipyard and the planes and conversations I overheard, everyday rituals: what we ate, what I wore, what I saw. I laughed to think what good it would do him. Now I can only laugh at myself—the government must have been looking for suspicious activities, but he didn’t tell me that. He told me to pretend I was keeping a diary. I did my duty; I did it even when I left my first job to become a WAVE—only a few other girls from a community like mine—spreading Noxzema on our pimply faces, the girls’ rears shaking to the radio, getting used to Coke instead of rationed coffee and Chinese food instead of hamburgers. I sat there every night and tried to write it all down, but I found my own life lacking; it hardly seemed worth telling. Like so many people, I was deaf to my own stories. So I made them up.

My life wasn’t interesting to me, but I’d read books that were, and that is what I put down, with details stolen from Flaubert and Ford and Ferber, intrigues and sorrows and brief colorful joys: a beautiful work of fiction for my country held together with silence and lies. That is, it turns out, what holds a country together. I did my job well, in the handwriting my mother had taught me, tall and loyal and true, signed with the special slipknot P for Pearlie I invented at the age of nine, mailed to Mr. William Pinker, 62 Holly Street, Washington, D.C.

What did you do in the war, Grandma? I lied to my country, pretending to tattle on friends. I’m sure I was just one of thousands; I’m sure it was a clearinghouse for lonely hearts like me. Imagine the ad jingle: Be a finker … for Mr. Pinker!

Then the war ended, as did the factory work for women and our jobs as WAVEs. I had long since stopped writing my notes to Washington; there was so much else to worry about and I had my position doing piecework sewing to pay for meals. And one day, alone down by the ocean, I walked right by a sailor on a bench, sitting with his book facedown like a fig leaf on his lap, staring out to sea.

I knew very little about men, so I was startled to see such despair on his square handsome face. I knew him. The boy who’d held my hand all the way to Childress, whose heart I had, at least briefly, possessed. Holland Cook.

I said hello.

Well hi there, Sarah, how’s the dog? he said amiably. The wind stopped, as if, like Holland, it did not recognize me. Sarah was not my name.

We stayed there for a moment in the oyster-colored air, with his smile slowly sagging, my hand holding the flap of my coat to my throat, my bright kerchief tugging in the wind, and a sickness building in my stomach. I could have moved on; merely walked away so he would never know who I was. Just some strange girl fading into the fog.

But instead I said my name.

Then you recognized me, didn’t you, Holland? Your childhood sweetheart. Pearlie who’d read poetry to you, who’d taken piano lessons from your mother; that was the second time we met. A sudden memory of home, opening like a pop-up book. He chatted with me, he even made me laugh a little, and when I said I had no escort to the movies that Friday and asked if he would come, he paused a while before looking at me, saying quietly, All right.

I was shocked when he turned up at my rooming house. The low-watt bulbs revealed a weary man, hat in his hands, his skin a little ashen, his elegant necktie loosely knotted. He claimed, years later, that he couldn’t even remember what he or I wore that night: Was it the green dress? No, Holland; it was black roses on white; its pattern is framed and hung in my memory alongside our honeymoon wallpaper (pale green garlands). I thought he might be drunk; I was afraid he might collapse, but he smiled and offered his arm and after the film took me to a nice restaurant out in North Beach. At dinner, he hardly ate or spoke. He barely looked at me, or noticed the stares we got from other patrons; his own gaze was fixed on two cast-iron dogs that sat before the unlit fireplace. So after we had taken the streetcar to my corner, and it was time to say good night, I was surprised when he turned very quickly and kissed me on the mouth. An electric jolt of happiness passed through me. He stepped back, breathing quickly and buttoned his jacket to go. I have to see a friend, he told me sharply.

Holland, I said. He looked back at me as if I had jerked a string. Holland, I repeated. He waited. And then I said the right thing. It was the only time I ever did: Let me take care of you.

His deep eyes awakened. Did he think I meant to remind him of our time back in Kentucky, that I offered the soft threat of the past? A dark line appeared between his eyebrows.

He said, You don’t know me, not really.

I told him that didn’t matter, but what I meant was that he was wrong; I knew him, of course I knew all about him from that time in our constricting little hometown: the grass behind the schoolyard we used to poke with a stick, the path from Franklin to Childress cluttered with witch hazel and touch-me-nots and railroad vine, the ice shivering in a summer pitcher of his mother’s lemonade—the lost world that only I remembered. For here we were so far from home. The one we could never regain. Who could know him better than I?

I acted instinctively. All I wanted was to keep him there on the shining streetcar tracks. Let me take care of you again.

You serious? he asked.

You know, Holland, I’ve never been kissed by any boy but you.

That ain’t true, it’s been years, Pearlie. So much has changed.

I haven’t changed.

Immediately he took my shoulder and pressed his lips to mine.

Two months later, by those same cable-car tracks, he whispered: Pearlie, I need you to marry me. He told me that I didn’t really know his life, and of course he was right. Yet I married him. He was too beautiful a man to lose and I loved him.

The first thing people noticed in my husband was his looks. Tall, dark, with a comforting smile that seemed to hide nothing: the kind of effortless beauty that cannot be marred by strain or illness, like something beaten out of gold, so that even if you bent it or melted it down it would always be a pure, beautiful thing. That’s how I saw him, ever since I was a girl staring at him in our classroom. But I was not alone; it was how everybody saw him.

Beauty is a warping lens. He had the kind of looks that are always greeted by grins and handshakes, extra glances, stares held for a moment longer than usual; a smile and a face not easily forgotten. Even the way he held a cigarette, or leaned over to tie his shoe, had a certain masculine grace that made you want to sketch him. What a distorted, confusing way to live. To be offered jobs and rides and free drinks—It’s on the house, sweetie—to sense a room changing as you move through it. Watched everywhere you go. To be someone people long to possess, and to be used to this feeling; to be wanted so immediately, so often, that you have never known yourself what you might want.

And he was mine, of all incredible things.

What would I have told you about my husband, in those young days of our marriage? Just that he had a lovely baritone. And liked his whiskey neat. That he would lend a stranger twenty dollars if he seemed like the right sort of fellow; and later, when we had a son, he carefully tracked his health, and called the doctor whenever we were worried, and tenderly soaped Sonny’s legs in the bathtub as if everything were good. Always well dressed and smelling of leather and wood, like a favorite coat or a fine piece of furniture. He liked to smoke but hated to be seen doing it—a holdover from his soldier days—and I would come upon him, in our married home, leaning against the frame of the patio door with a lonely expression, right hand dangling emptily inside, left hand trailing smoke: exactly the position of California leaning against the Pacific. He kissed me goodbye every morning at eight and hello every evening at six; he worked hard to provide for us all; he had nearly lost his life for his country. Loyal, decent, a soldier: American virtues. All that is true, of course, though it gets no closer to the real man. They are simply the things one would set upon a tombstone. They have, in fact, been set upon the tombstone of Holland Cook.

Just after our engagement, Holland’s aunts arrived at my rooming house. Alice and Beatrice, not really his aunts, in fact, but elderly twin cousins who, when he came to San Francisco, announced they were his mothers now, and arranged themselves in his life like cats unhelpfully placing themselves in the folds of an unmade bed.

They took me out for an elegant lunch and they told me that I needed to know something about Holland before I married him. It was a beautiful setting. We sat in a special area of a department-store lunchroom, after being turned away by two others; it was four floors up from Union Square with a great stained-glass ship floating overhead and waiters, old men in jackets, buzzing everywhere, back in the days when department stores had rotunda art galleries and libraries of books to buy or rent. Imagine a time when you could rent a book from Macy’s! I sat in that glittering room with those pinched old women staring at me with odd, sad expressions. I was young and scared to death. We need to tell you about Holland, one of them said—I hadn’t yet learned the trick to telling them apart—and the other nodded. He’s real ill. I’m sure he hasn’t told you.

He’s ill?

They shared a glance—I was too young to know what it might mean—and Alice said, There isn’t a cure.

It’s gotten better, but there isn’t a cure, her twin repeated. I would later learn that the difference between them was that the elder had a birthmark, and the younger’s heart had been broken, thirty years earlier, by a married man. As if that, too, might leave a mark.

I looked down and noticed I’d eaten all the beautiful popovers.

He’s had a hard life, Alice cut in, and it made no sense to me. The war, his mother’s death— and then she broke off in a sob, staring out the great windows that looked down on a monument: Dewey’s triumph in the Pacific.

I asked them what exactly was wrong with him. The younger aunt put her hand on her lips, like an old statue, and told me it was bad blood, a crooked heart, that there was no cure for it.

But, I said, but I’ll take care of him.

We heard how you took care of him in the war, Beatrice said.

Yes, I told them carefully. Yes, me and his mother.

She looked at me with a shrewd eye. I was at that age when you believe all kinds of upside-down things, including that your elders are innocents and fools, and that women in particular are children, to be treated gently and kindly, and only you—who have, after all, kissed a soldier back from war—know anything of the world. So while I heard those women speaking in their haughty accents, I was not really listening to the words.

Miss Ash, the older aunt said and then used my first name: "Pearlie. We’re relying on you. Don’t you let him out of your sight. You know how he loves some excitement, and it’ll kill him for sure. I don’t like him taking our old property, out in the Outside Lands, it makes me nervous, but I guess it’ll do him good, far away, out near the ocean air. He won’t need to go downtown, or worry over the past. His family should be enough, Pearlie. You should be

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What people think about The Story of a Marriage

50 ratings / 38 Reviews
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  • (3/5)
    Read this book with a notebook and pen handy! There were so many phrases I wanted to capture, but the story moved along so quickly, I never wanted to put the book down to record them. Excellent, quick read that offers a lot to think about when it is over.
  • (5/5)
    Every once in a while a book comes along that is so good but packs so much surprise that you don't want to even talk about what it is about. You just want to say 'READ THIS!' and thrust it into your friends' hands. Greer recounts this story of a marriage and so much more with poignancy and beautiful turn of phrase. Yet this does not detract from the underlying tension carried throughout his novel. Go get your copy, your sunscreen, lawn chair and beverage. The book will grab you from the first sentence and not let you go until the last. Then march over to your neighbor's house and say 'READ THIS!' I guarantee you will want them to, so that you can talk about this fantastic book.
  • (4/5)
    Carefully crafted, internal story with narration by only one character, i found the book to be full of insight, but the action a bit too slow for me. Beautifully written.
  • (4/5)
    This was the first book I received as an Early Reviewer and I could not have had a better introduction to librarything reviewing! From its memorable opening line - which I'm afraid I'm not allowed to quote as this was an uncorrected proof - I was drawn into this bittersweet love story and my attention never wavered. At the heart of The Story of a Marriage is a variation on the eternal triangle, which is gradually revealed; even if you correctly anticipate the nature of the triangle, Andrew Sean Greer's writing is so subtle that he still manages to convey the full emotional impact on Pearlie when the truth about the other significant relationship in her husband's life is revealed.But there are other surprises for the reader too, including one so profound that it's hard to see how the signs can have been missed. Greer certainly challenges our perceptions and our assumptions. I grew up in the 1950s, when this novel is set and, although my childhood was spent on the other side of the world from San Francisco, The Story of a Marriage evokes that strange time extremely well. The Cold War was at its height and the fearfulness of citizens in the West constantly reinforced by politicians - the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs act as a chilling counterpoint to the story of Pearlie and Holland's marriage; former servicemen who had fought in World War II and the Korean War had returned home to bury their memories; the spectre of devastating diseases such as polio haunted our growing up, and social divisions based on class and race were rigid.The Story of a Marriage is recounted with great tenderness and poignancy but this never detracts from the underlying tension of the plot. And, yes, the author, through Pearlie's voice, keeps us guessing - until the final pages - how the story ends.
  • (4/5)
    If you're looking for a short, atmospheric novel to read this summer, I recommend Andrew Greer's latest book, "The Story of a Marriage," which recounts the story of one family's domestic crisis in post-war California, 1953.Greer's tale, which follows the lives of the Cook family (Pearl, Holland, and their young toddler, Sonny) as they settle into the newly developed Sunset district of San Francisco, contains several well-placed surprises that I won't give away here. In the course of the story, the author makes it abundantly clear that the 1950's appear "golden" only if they are viewed through the rosy lens of selective memory. If you enjoyed membership in a favored class -- white, politically orthodox, and heterosexual -- the decade had its high points. Otherwise, not so much.Greer weaves the darker threads of the 50's -- polio outbreaks, communist witch hunts, the Korean War, and the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation -- into his story with language that is evocative, yet understated. He is at his best when he addresses societal restrictions that suppressed personal freedom and dignity. Pearl and Holland live in a world where elegant grandmothers in their Sunday hats, eager to celebrate a special occasion, must request directions to the "special area" of the tea room reserved for blacks. Gay men are rounded up in private club raids and imprisoned for criminal indecency. Interracial couples must assess when and where they can be seen in public without risking physical injury. Conscientious objectors and draft dodgers are run out of their hometowns and forced to relocate in order to reclaim any semblance of a normal life. Next door neighbors spy on each other and suppress their political opinions. Unhappy wives and husbands consider clandestine murder as a preferable alternative to the public shame of a divorce. A repressed blanket of desperation smothers Pearl and Holland's suburban neighborhood as thoroughly as the fog that rolls in from San Francisco Bay each morning.As indicated by the book's title, Pearl and Holland's marriage crisis forms the crux of the novel. Pearl, Holland, and some integral third parties are all casting about for some measure of freedom, some unfettered definition of their own personhood, throughout the book. Although the novel is written in Pearl's voice, I think that Greer's depiction of Holland's internal struggle offers the more subtle and deep exploration of human nature. Holland is portrayed as a handsome man -- the stunning kind of "handsome" that necessarily affects every aspect of his existence. It is his gift, and his curse. Greer writes (in Pearl's voice): "By being what everyone wanted him to be -- being the husband, the flirt, the beautiful object, and the lover -- by pleasing us all in giving us his gracious smile, he had tortured each of us when it did not turn our way. Beauty is forgiven everything except its absence from our lives, and the effort to return all loves at once must have broken him."Other characters in the novel seem to have some idea of who they want to be and how they want to escape the box that the mid-20th century has constructed around them. Holland, on the other hand, has lost all sense of himself after years of existing as no more than a mirror image of other people's desires. Everyone has attempted to employ his beauty and use it to actualize their own "dream narrative." He has been a chameleon for so long that he is hard pressed to know his own heart's desire, and the choice he eventually makes may surprise you.This is a good book on many levels -- I recommend it.
  • (5/5)
    What a wonderful book! I recommended this book to my mother and found I really couldn't say what it was about because to describe the story line is to give away the heart of the book. I simply said it's a story of Pearlie and Holland Cook's marriage set in San Francisco in the 1950s and it contains more than a few worthwhile surprises. To say this is about racism or sexuality is to strip it of it's grace.
  • (4/5)
    Pearlie Cook is a woman living with her husband and a four-year-old son in a small house in the Sunset district of San Francisco. She lives simply until she faces an unexpected visitor from the past. Suddenly, her marriage is shaken by its roots, and she is forced into making some radical decisions about her life.Having read and loved Andrew Sean Greer's [The Confessions of Max Tivoli], I came into this book with high expectations. I found myself floundering through the first half of this book, being confused as to what was going on. The action moved between five main characters, but not as smoothly as I would have wanted. I proceeded slowly. Then suddenly, about two-thirds of the way through the book, I was pulled deeply into the story and swept up by its lyrical writing.Of note is the fact that certain important traits of the characters were not revealed until later in the book. Those revelations (no spoilers here!) fit into the story in an interesting way, particularly in relation the time setting (1953). This jarred me into taking more notice of what the author was trying to say.The end of the story was both beautiful and emotional. I had to stop along the way, though, to jot down some memorable lines. I even caught myself deciding exactly how I wanted the story to end before reaching its actual conclusion. I did appreciate how the author constructed the ending, reaching into many years later to see the outcome of decisions made a long time ago.
  • (4/5)
    I gave this book an extra half-point for effort in introducing a broad number of issues in post-WW II society. Discrimination was a fact of life and the book covers the topic on many fronts including racial, sexual orientation, McCarthyism (political), and pacifism (conscientious objectors). It also shows that a marriage can hide many secrets and need not be perfect to be in many way, a good marriage.I didn't give the book a higher rating because the prose doesn't flow well, there are some simply awful metaphors, and in an effort to keep the books secrets unexposed, the reader can feel lost at times.I work in a library, and when the book "The Great Starvation Experiment" came across my desk, I decided to read it since I felt Greer had certainly used this as one reference for his novel's background. It turned out to be an interesting read and indeed, elaborated one of the novel's more interesting and less known historical themes.
  • (5/5)
    Beautifully written story of , yes, a marriage - one that is strange to say the least and then the stranger appears and turns everything upside down- relationships of all manner are dealt with and thigs that are thought and said many older people will recognise - Poignant
  • (1/5)
    It seems this story has polarized readers. Some love it, while others intensely dislike the book. I fall into the latter camp. I thought I was really going to like it initially, but then the story went way over the top into unbelievability for me. I found myself disliking it more and more as the pages progressed. It’s really almost impossible to speak about the issues I had with the book without giving away some huge spoilers, but I will give you a taste of what it’s about.Holland and Pearlie Cook are childhood sweethearts with a son and a dog that doesn’t bark. Everything is going along fine until one day Buzz, a man from Holland’s past, shows up at the door and changes everything. Set in the 50’s and San Francisco.
  • (1/5)
    This was absolutely dire. On many many occasions I would have loved to step into the book and given the characters a good hard slap across the face for being so stupid. Then I would like to go back and actually find out what on earth the writer was doing when he wrote this - was he drunk? It's just non stop drivel. It was such a chore to read, it has no pace or excitement, no hooks are used to keep the momentum going - or in this case actually keep me awake. I'd give this a wide berth and find something more entertaining or shorter.
  • (4/5)
    Exactly what the title says. I listened to this beautiful description of an incredibly convoluted story. The author pulled so many things together as he wound this cobweb into a complex pattern. The story went along so gently but with so much sadness mixed with the plain ol' living of lives, day by day, watching the changes take place both inside and outside from Pearlie's point of view.
  • (5/5)
    “Holland and I had talked about our friends and our childhoods and movies and books and politics—we had agreed and disagreed and had our fights and merry moments over a beer—but I think it’s fair to say we had never spoken honestly in all ours lives.” This quote from A Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer prettily sums up the story’s central conflict. The narrator, Pearlie a young mother and wife to her high school sweetheart, Holland grapples with her marriage in 1950’s San Francisco. She says, “I loved you like a field on fire,” in reference to Holland, and yet her marriage and commitments are tested by the appearance of a dapper stranger.It does the novel a disservice to reveal any more about the plot, as its secrets are revealed in well timed waves. In fact the book’s only draw back is its brevity as its simple prose endears readers page by page. It’s an unconventional love story written with graceful restraint and vibrant characters. The Story of a Marriage is as perfect a novel as any I've read.
  • (4/5)
    The story begins with Pearlie looking after her husband, Holland, & their disabled son Sonny, going about her daily housewife's chores & building their life together after WW II in 1950's San Francisco. Until one day Charles 'Buzz' Drumer arrived on Pearlie's doorstep, throwing their lives into turmoil. I have to say this is a wonderfully written novel, & I fell completely into it from the beginning. It's an eye opening look into how well we know other people in our lives.Through the book you get to know Pearlie quite well, though Holland remains a bit of a mystery. I liked the secondary characters of the Old Aunts, they knew far more about Holland, and tried to advise Pearlie, and warn her off marrying Holland, with out actually telling all, eventually though as the book draws to it's conclusion, Pearlie begins to see what they were doing & how much the must have known. The novel didn't finish as I though it would, never the less a good ending. A very enjoyable read.
  • (5/5)
    Pearlie Cook is quietly married to Holland. They live contentedly in the Sunset district of San Francisco with their son, in a house next to the Pacific Ocean. Holland is breath-stoppingly handsome, and Pearlie never quite understands why he married her, despite their having been closest childhood friends. One day Buzz Drumer, a white man and WWII “buddy” of Holland’s shows up at her door and insinuates himself into their family.Pearlie, who has long believed that Holland has a heart condition from his shocking war experiences, devotes herself to shielding him from the bruises of life. Then she learns from Buzz that he and Holland had met in the military psychiatric hospital and that they had been lovers. Now he wants Holland back, and he’s prepared to pay.Greer’s story of the taboos and racism of mid-century America unfolds delicate as a flower in a gentle parting of petals, but the sense of foreboding and perhaps doom pervades in his atmospheric prose and the telling incident that feel secretive. Yet, Greer holds nothing back, warning us from the opening of the book what kind of story he is going to tell us, “We think we know the ones we love, and though we should not be surprised to find that we don’t, it is heartbreak nonetheless.”This is a unique American Gothic tale with balanced overtones of shattering betrayal and ultimately, exquisite kindness. It is a book about the lengths people will go to avoid becoming cannon fodder in war, about the silent depths with which they love one another, and about the width of one man’s “curious” human heart.A best read of the year. Now want to read Greer’s earlier novel, "The Confessions of Max Tivoli."
  • (5/5)
    Love story set at the beginning of wwii between a boy and a girl. The boy goes away to war and has a white male lover. The lover comes back and spends six months convincing Pearlie that Holland needs to be with him (Buzz), Poignant, filled with rich real characters. I would recommend this book and may be reading it again for book club.
  • (4/5)
    This is a hypnotic period-piece of a novel with a series of twists that shift the reader's perceptions.
  • (3/5)
    This is a well-written book that contains many surprises and an insight into the dark side of the innocence of the post-WWII world. The three main characters are an enigma to me, especially Holland. After the premise of the relationships among the three is revealed, I wondered repeatedly why Pearlie didn't simply talk wtih Holland for confirmation or denial. I didn't see any depth to these characters or any development of the relationships. That said, it is well written and an interesting view of the 1950s.
  • (3/5)
    I could never quite decide if I liked this book or not. I found it difficult to engage with the characters and hard to grasp their feelings. I couldn't believe that Pearlie would give up on Holland so easily and hand him over to Buzz for a plot of land and some dollars. Yet it is quite moving, especially Pearlie's description of the last night with Holland and the following morning. Greer makes us feel the moment of truth when the planning is over and Holland must leave. This is a novel where there is as much hidden as revealed and we are drip-fed information. It tackles many subjects: racism, sexuality, post-war America, relationships, war and how they all combine to shape the lives of the characters. By the end of the book I was won over by it.
  • (3/5)
    “We think we know the ones we love.” That is the first sentence in The Story of a Marriage, and it captures the essence of the book. We may love wholly, devote our lives, spend endless moments with and around our loved ones, but, in the end Greer tells us, we will never really be able to predict their behavior or anticipate their choices. The three central characters, Pearlie and Holland Cook, and Buzz Drumer revolve around each other like planets or satellites, occasionally shedding luminous light on each other and at other times, casting dark shadows and infectious doubt. The story of how these three basically good and solid individuals struggle to really know each other, takes place during the repressive and suspicious 1950’s at the end of one war and the beginning of another. Greer captures the essence of the times -- the communist fear, the nuclear threat, and the segregationist movement. We do not learn that Pearlie is “colored” until the last line of the first chapter. Greer wants us to think of her first as a reflective and somber individual. Do we know the ones we love? Can we make choices based on what we think they want or desire? Can we make good choices if we love too much? Mistakes are made, some are corrected, and in the end we do our best. While not as imaginative and unique as The Confessions of Max Tivoli, The Story of a Marriage confirms Greer’s talent as a thoughtful, precise writer who is able to create deep emotional moments and fully-realized characters.Tony winner Merkerson’s careful and precisely modulated reading exactly reflects the tone of the book.
  • (4/5)
    Pearlie Cook is a housewife in San Francisco post-World War II. She lives in a small house with her husband Holland and young son who has polio. Pearlie knew Holland when they were both growing up in the South, was his girlfriend back home before he went into the war. When she arrived in San Francisco, she met him again entirely by accident, and it was not long before he told her that he needed her to marry him.I was a bit apprehensive when Pearlie married Holland, because it really didn’t seem that she knew him at all, which given the rest of the book is probably exactly what I should have been feeling. Holland doesn’t talk much about his time in the war, so Pearlie really is not expecting it when Buzz comes to their front door, claiming to be a friend of Holland’s from when he was in the army. Even less expected than Buzz’s presence, however, is what he will tell Pearlie and the sacrifice he will ask of her.Initially I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about this book. There is a sort of dreamy, far-off quality about the story, particularly in the beginning and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to identify with any of the characters because of it. However, Greer’s beautiful, lyrical writing soon drew me into the story. It made sense for the novel to have such a dreamy quality, because much of what happened seemed surreal to Pearlie.This is a wonderfully done work of literary fiction. If you stick primarily with contemporary fiction and don’t venture much into literary fiction this may not quite work for you, but if you enjoy literary fiction I highly suggest you give this a read.
  • (3/5)
    I am struggling to come up with my reactions to this novel. I don't think I would have finished it except that I was reviewing it. I am glad I finished it, as it ended differently to how I thought it would, and because it wasn't a bad book. Which is sort of damning by faint praise...It is the story of a marriage, told by Pearlie, the wife. So everything is seen through her eyes, and you only know what she lets you know. It is hard to know how reliable she is, how things appeared to the other characters, and throughout the novel, I kept wondering "is this what really happened?"Her tone is a very detached one, which is contagious. I found that my experience of reading it was quite detached too. I didn't really care what happened, though I was curious. This detachment isn't what I read fiction for, so I only gave it a two-and-a-half stars rating. However, it is well written and gave me plenty to look up about the second word war years in the USA, something I only know a little about. Now, to find a novel which covers WW2 and the post-war experience in San Francisco and which makes me care about the characters...
  • (5/5)
    The Story of a Marriage is one of those rare books where the prose outshines a very good plot. Simply put, Greer's writing is why people read (or should read). Post WWII America, complex relationships, and sexuality are entertwined in this novel as the author takes the reader on a emotionally complex roller coaster of a ride. Like all good roller coasters, you hate for the ride to end. What is love? What is the price of love? Do actions speak louder than words? These are the kinds of superficial questions that are probed much deeper through this impactful book. I am glad to add a new favorite writer to my "must read" list.
  • (3/5)
    I received this book to read and review last weekend and found it a quick read but have needed time to reflect on my views. It takes us into the heart of a marriage between Pearlie and Holland in a time of change and reflection. It gives us a short intense look at a marriage which I found sometimes struggles with the number of different issues it is trying to reflect. I found the concept intriguing - a marriage described by a young wife in post WWII America where: racism; draft dodging; conscientious objectors; homosexuality; and disability are thrown together in a melting pot [sorry a bit cliched!] ... but I found the intensity of the issues prevented me from engaging in depth with the characters. We don't get a sense of any passion and the relationship between Pearlie and Holland is very hard to gauge; in fact her relationship with a rival for his affections is fleshed out much more.Having expressed my reservations I do feel that the writer caght some of the essence of those times and the struggles for a voice that minorities often felt and still feel. The plot development did make me want to know what happened, and there are twists, but I feel that the novel, for me, doesn't quite achieve what the premise and ideas behind it might have.
  • (5/5)
    I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book as much as i did. it's a slim novel and so quick to read, yet it leaves you thinking for some time about the nature of marriage, love and relationships, as well as the the war and how it affects life, even years after.
  • (4/5)
    This book has more surprises in the first 50 pages than I have read in a very long time. This is the unique story of Holland and Pearlie Cook, set primarily in California beginning just at the end of WWII. Very unique, compelling. Asks the question, how well do we really know the people we love?
  • (4/5)
    It’s impossible to discuss "The Story of a Marriage" without introducing spoilers. Let’s just say it’s about relationships, surprises, long-time-ago San Francisco, and a good read. This novel is best appreciated if you don't know much more than that once you start reading.
  • (4/5)
    I chose this book originally because of all the positive buzz I heard about it. I was happy to see when I received it that it was set in San Francisco. Consequently, I saved it for a month so that I could take it along with us on our anniversary trip to SF. We are here in SF now. I started it yesterday on the plane and finished it last night.It was the perfect book for this trip. Of course its setting in SF is fun, as we visited some of the places mentioned in the book. But, more than that, the book looks at the idea of marriage and love and relationships and commitment. Greer is a master of ambiguity, as is life, so his book perfectly reflects both the despair and the joy that marriage and relationships can bring.
  • (4/5)
    I really enjoyed [book:The Confessions of Max Tivoli], so when I heard that Andrew Sean Greer had a new book on its way, I jumped at the chance to read the galley. I'm so glad I did!

    This book is wonderful - really a four-and-a-half star book. You know I love a good twist, and this book has not just one, but two (which obviously I am not going to give away, except to say that this is not a mystery in any way). Greer continues to use his command of language to craft a compelling narrative about the bonds between people, their fragilities, strengths, & complexities. I'm just saying, read the book. Seriously.
  • (4/5)
    Well, it wasn't as good as I expected based on the reviews. A white man shows up at the door of a married black woman's house in the 1950s claiming to have fallen in love with her husband during the war. They enter into some sort of unclear arrangement to cede the husband to him, for unclear reasons, and to steer him away from the young daughter of his employer with some sort of unclear letter. It's written like an elegy, lovely writing at times and at others annoyingly over-written.