Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 208 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If there’s one novel that has divided British-based book bloggers this year, it has been Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage.
I don’t normally begin my reviews by telling you what other people think of the book in question, but it’s impossible to review this one without giving away crucial plot spoilers, hence I need a different approach.
In the pro-camp we have Dovegreyreader, who described it “one of those complete and wholly satisfying reading experiences and one of the few books I know I would read again”; Kirsty from Other Stories, who stayed up until the wee small hours to finish it, called it “quite wonderful”; and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, who said “the precision and beauty of the language held me mesmerised”.
In the opposing camp we have Mark Thwaite of Ready Steady Book, who described it as a “mawkish tapestry of cliché”, and John Self of Asylum, who claimed “there isn’t much I can think of that I liked about it”.
Victoria from Eve’s Alexandria fell somewhere between these two stools. “It is not quite a matter of I love and yet I hate — such heady emotions are rarely to be aroused,” she said. “It is more, perhaps, that I enjoy and yet I heartily dislike.” To which I give three cheers, because that’s kind of how I felt about it too.
The Story of a Marriage frustrated and annoyed me more than it entertained me. I had expected to like it, and I must admit I really enjoyed the first section which sets up the novel’s premise in which Pearlie, a dutiful housewife and mother of a young invalid son, opens the door to a stranger who has the potential to destroy her marriage.
In this novel, Greer’s second, everything is not as it seems. The author takes great delight in throwing in surprises — or “reveals” — that turn your assumptions on their head just when you least expect it, and it is this reader manipulation to which I most objected. (I felt exactly the same way about Ian McEwan’s Atonement when I read it six years ago, because the mean-spirited tricks he played towards the end of the story ruined the brilliance of what lay before.)
Even when I thought I had a handle on the story — that it was about a marriage being torn asunder in suburban San Francisco — the author throws that assumption on its head too:
This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass. Not an ordinary story of men in battle but of those who did not go to war. The cowards and shirkers; those who let an error keep them from their duty, those who saw it and hid, those who stood up and refused it; even those too young to know that one day they would rise and flee their own country, like my son would, when his time came to go to war. The story of those men, and of a woman in a window, unable to do a thing but watch.
There were other things that annoyed me: the constant references to 1953, the time in which the book is set (we get the point already); the overt repetition of key themes (“We think we know the ones we love”); Pearlie’s sheer passivity and her inability to communicate with her husband, Holland, even when their marriage is under the most severe threat; and Holland’s lack of presence in the story (he’s like a cardboard cut-out, just hovering there in the background).
Of course, the book’s not all bad. The writing is, at times, exquisite, although for the most part it comes across as being slightly laboured, as if the author is trying too hard. Which is kind of a shame, because if there was less “trickery” and fewer flourishes, there would have been more room for the narrative to breathe. Instead it labours under the weight of too many words, lined up in ways that are too complicated to be effortless.
But dig beneath the shiny surface and you can see that this is an intriguing story about human relationships and how — yes, you guessed it — we never really know the ones we love. And while the period backdrop provides a certain “flavour” and provides the social and cultural conditions upon which the marriage between Pearlie and Holland was born, I’m sure that 1950s America does not hold a monopoly on these kinds of stories.
All up, I enjoyed the story but I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters. The ending, when it came, was a blessed relief — in more ways than one.
I realise this “review” doesn’t really tell you much about the plot or structure of The Story of a Marriage — you will simply have to find that out for yourself. If you do read it, please come back and let me know which camp you fall in to: pro, anti or somewhere in between.