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The Story of a Marriage A Novel

Andrew Sean Greer

Picador

0312428286

9780312428280

Trade Paperback

208 Pages

$15.00

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Longlisted for the International IMPAC Literary AwardA Financial Times Best Book of the YearA San Francisco Chronicle Best 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, lives in the Sunset district of San Francisco, caring not only for her older husband in his fragile health but also for her son, who is afflicted with polio. Then, on a Saturday morning, a stranger comes to her doorstep and offers her $100,000 if she will leave her marriage, her family, and her life behind. All the certainties by which Pearlie has lived are thrown into doubt. For six months in 1953, young Pearlie Cook struggles to understand the world around her, most especially her husband, Holland.

Pearlie’s story is a meditation not only on love but also on the effects of war—with one war just over and another one in Korea coming to a close. Set in a climate of fear and repression—political, sexual, and racial—The Story of a Marriage portrays three people trapped by the confines of their era, and the desperate measures they are prepared to take to escape it. Lyrical and surprising, The Story of a Marriage looks back at a period that we tend to misremember as one of innocence and simplicity.

REVIEWS

Praise for The Story of a Marriage

"The Story of a Marriage is just that, the chronicle of one marriage, closely and elegantly examined . . . a plot that deepens as surprises explode unexpectedly and terrifyingly . . . It's thoughtful, complex and exquisitely written."—Carolyn See, The Washington Post

"A timeless story of conflicting loyalties, The Story of a Marriage has roots in the fiction of Poe's era, but, fittingly enough, its plot is firmly anchored in the vividly described America of the early 1950s—a seemingly serene era whose submerged social, racial and political tensions would soon create their own disruptions and upheavals."—Maggie Scarf, The New York Times Book Review

"From the beginning of this inspired, lyrical novel, the reader is pulled along by the attentive voice of Pearlie, a young African-American woman who travels west to San Francisco in search of a better life after growing up in a rural Kentucky town . . . Mr. Greer's considerable gifts as a storyteller ascend to the heights of masters like Marilynne Robinson and William Trevor. In the hands of a lesser writer this narrative might have stumbled into a literary derivation of Annie Proulx's now famous short story 'Brokeback Mountain.' But instead Mr. Greer creates a moving story that is all his own via an intimate view of Pearlie's world, which has spun off its axis . . . Mr. Greer seamlessly choreographs an intricate narrative that speaks authentically to the longings and desires of his characters."—S. Kirk Walsh, The New York Times

"'We think we know the ones we love,' begins Andrew Sean Greer's bewitching third novel, The Story of a Marriage, a book whose linguistic prowess and raw storytelling power is almost disruptive to the reader. It's too good to put down and yet each passage is also too good to leave behind . . . Greer's short novel feels admirably worked over—like a long-simmered sauce. He near-brilliantly juxtaposes the nuances of love, sexual awakening and the sometimes suffocating sacrifices marriage demands against broader cultural observations about political turmoil, the physical and emotional effects of war, sexual repression and racism . . . His book is a perfect mix of what we seek from literature—captivating storytelling; a complex, finely tuned structure; stunning language; and astute observations about both the mundane intricacies of everyday relationships and society as a whole. Indeed, The Story of a Marriage is as much a war story as it is a love story."—Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"The cleverest aspect of The Story of a Marriage is the way Greer uses the little dramas of private individuals to enact and embody the abstract political and social concerns of the country at large. In Greer's novel, the lack of understanding between individuals, and our failure to grasp that very lack of understanding—the idea that, as Pearlie states more than once, ‘We think we know the ones we love’—is made to stand for the lack of understanding between different communities within American society. The idea that ‘what we love turns out to be a poor translation,’ for instance, is later brought back in a very different and much broader context . . . The Story of a Marriage is the story of an entire country of people who cannot speak to or hear one another. Pearlie's husband, Holland, remains an enigma not only to her but also to the reader. Indeed, he rarely appears in the book, and when he is onstage, he does little. One comes to believe that he is one of those people whose presence is so minimal that one is never certain whether he is even in the room. He is, in a sense, the center of the book, the one whose actions set everything in motion, yet we never witness those actions directly and instead only hear about them, and the center feels like a hollow void. And Pearlie, too, seems somehow absent, as if, despite her role as first-person narrator, her real conversation with herself is taking place on a level to which we have no real access. (Though then again, perhaps it is Pearlie herself who has no access to her real thoughts and feelings.) . . . Greer's focus in this novel is on those members of that generation who stayed on these shores, many of whom in their various ways suffered tremendously, sufferings that, in keeping with the book's overall theme, frequently proved incomprehensible to others. Wives and girlfriends, mothers and fathers, draft dodgers, conscientious objectors (referred to in the slang of the day as 'conchies'), all of these had their own particular stories of misery, heartbreak, isolation and occasionally madness. But these stories were often too painful, too terrible to tell. And even when their bearers managed to find the strength of will to articulate them, what they all too often found was that there was no one who would listen."—Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle

"You could say that Andrew Sean Greer is back at it again, cleverly telling tales with his elegant sleight-of-hand. His last novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, set in early 20th century San Francisco, chronicled the adventures of said Max, who at birth resembles an old man but with each passing year grows younger in appearance, upending life-cycle assumptions and limitations. Greer's new novel, The Story of a Marriage, doesn't turn on a series of fantastic, suspension-of-belief plot points, but the unadorned title belies the startling narrative land mines Greer has seeded within the novel . . . Not quite 200 pages, the novel nonetheless has grand, sweeping ambitions, taking on war, race, sexual orientation, patriotism, the shifting notion of what it is to be an American. Holland's past and Pearlie's future are backdropped by a country still set off-balance by the atmosphere of war—still haunted by World War II, now buffeted by one in Korea. But it is the book's surprise turns that create the biggest temblors—not just in the lives on the page but also within the reader's minds . . . The book's secrets are the true heart of the matter—like the secrets we keep in life in order, we think, to better manage it. They're so important that in the advanced reader's copy, Greer's editor, Frances Coady, included a note that is a 'plea' not to 'reveal its secrets to those readers coming after you.'"—Lynell George, Los Angeles Times

"Greer is a gifted writer bent on showing that, between the upheaval of World War II and the activism of the 1960s, the political and social issues stirred up in those decades didn't disappear. They were just put out of view while the country took a breath. The Story of a Marriage is a neat little package about one couple that was forced to face them."—Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times

"The Story of a Marriage is firmly rooted in its period . . . The author also infuses the novel with a deep understanding about the fallibility of memory and perception, themes that make it seem timeless. Like most people, these characters have blind spots, and Greer portrays them with stunning focus."—Sara Eckel, Time Out New York

"The Story of a Marriage asks in its quiet way what happens when an outsider forces us to face the truth of our private lives—lives assumed to be settled and permanent, if largely unexamined . . . This emotionally complex novel resists tidy conclusions through finely nuanced narrative ambiguity and a bewitching lyricism."—Patrick Denman Flanery, The Times Literary Supplement

"The haunting questions in Andrew Sean Greer's exquisite new novel resonate with us all: 'What do you want from life? Could you even say?' . . . Revealing secrets in layers as delicate as onionskin, The Story of a Marriage explores the nature of love and connection and human frailty set against a backdrop of war and repression. Author of the poignant The Confessions of Max Tivoli, in which a man ages backward through time, Greer has an intrepid imagination, an uncanny ability to bring the past to rumbling life and a surprising mastery of tension. The Story of a Marriage unfolds in the shadow of one war and the defining memories of another, a domestic drama as suspenseful as any mystery. It's a finely structured whodunnit about the confusion inherent in matters of the heart. Greer doles out revelations with grace and precision—there are surprises in this novel, and it is best to surrender to them without preconceptions. Greer's prose, as in Max Tivoli, is unerringly poetic as he unearths images of Holland's aunts 'unhelpfully placing themselves like cats in an unmade bed' or Pearlie's view of Holland as 'a ghost breaking dishes so someone will know he is there.' Like his intuitive narrator, Greer holds few illusions about nostalgia for the good old days, deftly illustrating the fears and prejudices of the 1950s—racial, sexual, political. 'Fluoridation,' Pearlie reports, 'seemed like a horrible new invention.' . . . A recurring image of Ethel Rosenberg runs through Pearlie's days and dreams as she tries to understand what she wants. (Not bad blood. Not a crooked heart.) Why, she wonders, won't Ethel confess? In the end, though, she comes to learn what we all know: Marriage can be an inscrutable business. 'Anyone watching a ship from land is no judge of its seaworthiness, for the vital part is always underwater. It can't be seen.' What can be seen plainly on every page of this slim, lovely novel is Greer's prodigious talent."—Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

"Greer, the author of the national best-seller The Confessions of Max Tivoli, is a wondrously inventive writer. (Max Tivoli was a man born old who aged backwards). Here Greer has constructed a world of silences and shadows, revealing characters one shift of light at a time. So it's hard to tell more of what [Buzz] Drumer's visit does without revealing too much too soon. Better to drift quietly through this mesmerizing tale, where you'll want to charge forward to dig out the secrets in these people's lives while also wanting to drag your heels and revel in the beautiful writing of this hugely talented writer."—Peggy McMullen, The Oregonian (Portland)

"A beautiful, lyrical novel . . . a book full of urgent questions."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"This is a book that prides itself on its plot surprises, and begs readers not to give them away . . . The carefully crafted language of this book makes it a pleasure to read. The period details are a treasure. The author does a good job of leading the reader to certain expectations so that plot twists do surprise."—Sue Asher, Historical Novels Review

"The Story of a Marriage contains enough surprises that an interviewer must tread carefully for fear of depriving readers of some of the novel's great pleasures of discovery."—Alden Mudge, BookPage

"The novel The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Geer is a beautifully written book, even lyrical at times. Its sentences are simple and clear, their meaning seemingly transparent. It is also, for the greater part, a devastatingly sad novel. I didn't want to read it—put off by the black-and-white dust jacket, annoyed by the pretentious and foreboding title. Maybe I was looking for a beach-read, and this book is definitely not that. Despite my misgivings, I found within a few pages that the title word 'marriage' captures much more than a picture of the intimate relationship between a man and a wife. The novel could just as easily be titled The Story of a War, or The Story of Great Wealth, Lost and Found, or The Story of Lies and Truths Unknown and Discovered. What is interesting about this book is how many surprises it offers and how many serious themes are explored in a mundane woman's life. These themes include love, race, war, sex, money, family, the great divide between Kentucky and California, the enormous distance between adolescence and adulthood, and the similarities of today and the 1950s. I say a 'mundane' woman because that is how Pearlie, the main character, thinks of herself. To say much more about this novel would be to give away what shouldn't be given—which, by the way, is another theme of the book, whether the giving is one's country, one's self, or someone else's soul. Naturally, since the novel is like a pearl itself—something beautiful, hard, and precious, buried beneath layers of gritty sand, shell, and flesh—another theme is what we must give, tear, even flail away from ourselves in order to find and save what we love. At the risk of sounding pretentious myself, I can only say I envy Geer for having written this novel. The ending may surprise, relieve, or disappoint different readers. My own response was mixed. When I saw a couple today for marital counseling, I thought about my question upon closing Geer's book: how can two people knowing and living with each other, sharing a child, a bed, the breakfast table, fail so completely to understand one another? Yet the couple I was seeing, like the couple in Geer's novel, had never discovered how to ask each other about their greatest needs or their worst fears. They had not learned to communicate. Geer's novel will join the more standard texts on marital therapy on my bookshelf . . . I will certainly give it to interested colleagues or students and sometimes glance myself at that dismal jacket with the embossed silver-pearl title."—Susan E. Bailey, M.D., Psychiatric Services

"This is a haunting book of breathtaking beauty and restraint. Greer's tone-perfect prose conjures an unforgettable woman who exists both within and somehow above the stifling class, racial and sexual constraints of 1950s America—and who must unravel the great mystery of her place within it."—Dave Eggers

"Andrew Sean Greer, one of the most talented young writers of our time, has written a beautiful and moving tale of war, sacrifice, race, and motherhood. But ultimately, as with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, this is a book about love, and it is a marvel to watch Greer probe the mysteries of love to such devastating effect."—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns

"Emotionally wrenching . . . a haunting, thought-provoking novel about the liabilities of love."—Allison Block, Booklist

"As he demonstrated in the imaginative The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Greer can spin a touching narrative based on an intriguing premise. Even a diligent reader will be surprised by the revelations twisting through this novel and will probably turn back to the beginning pages to find the oblique hints hidden in Greer's crystalline prose. In San Francisco in 1953, narrator Pearlie relates the circumstances of her marriage to Holland Cook, her childhood sweetheart. Pearlie's sacrifices for Holland begin when they are teenagers and continue when the two reunite a few years later, marry and have an adored son. The reappearance in Holland's life of his former boss and lover, Buzz Drumer, propels them into a triangular relationship of agonizing decisions. Greer expertly uses his setting as historical and cultural counterpoint to a story that hinges on racial and sexual issues and a climate of fear and repression . . . This is a sensitive exploration of the secrets hidden even in intimate relationships, a poignant account of people helpless in the throes of passion and an affirmation of the strength of the human spirit."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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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
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  • Andrew Sean Greer and Daniel Handler in Conversation

    Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events, interviews Andrew Sean Greer about San Francisco, writing about the past, and the weight he does(n't) feel of previous San Francisco literary giants.

  • The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Andrew Sean Greer's novel The Story of a Marriage. "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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Andrew Sean Greer

  • Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, the story collection How It Was for Me, and the novel The Path of Minor Planets. He lives in San Francisco, California.
  • Andrew Sean Greer Copyright Henry Dombey
    Andrew Sean Greer
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