It’s a rare occurrence for a novel to grab me in the first sentence and not let go until the final word. Yet that is just what Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage (published in the UK today) almost did. We’ll talk about the last 13 pages in a moment.
We think we know the ones we love.
So runs the short, intriging and pitch-perfect opening sentence. The narrator is Pearlie, a devoted wife and mother living in 1950’s San Francisco, whose world is about to be knocked off its axis by someone from the past returning to reclaim her husband. Surprisingly Pearlie’s self esteem is so low that her every action from that point is to protect her son, not fight for her man. To reveal why she feels and acts this way would be to expose the astonishing revelations which Greer takes great pains to reveal only at the moment of maximum impact. So I’m certainly not going to destroy his masterplan. You have to read this for yourself. Really, you must!
While following Pearlie’s heartache is an emotional rollercoaster in itself, her experiences serve not only to explore the microcosm of one 1950’s American family rent asunder by the legacy of the past. They open up much wider themes. The 1950’s, often nostalgically remembered as the good old days, were, in reality, anything but. Greer’s characters were born in bad times. Divorce was not easy. America, recovering from WWII, was already embroiled in the Korean war. Who were the real heroes? Those who did their duty or those who refused to bow to the majority view and adhered to their pacifist ideals? Which experience was the most traumatic? Where was comfort to be found? Did money make a difference? What about the complications of race? There’s a huge iceberg of subtext floating beneath the surface of Pearlie’s drama.
The precision and beauty of the language held me mesmerised. The proof copy , supplied via Librarything Early Reviewers, forbids direct quotation. But I loved this book so much, that I have since acquired a bone fide 1st edition. And so to Pearlie’s words which cannot fail to resonate with the reader.
The alarm I felt was not just the shock of the words, as startling as someone jerking back the curtain in a dark room, blinding me with painful sunlight. It was that I had not known my husband at all. 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. It is the hardest kind of knowledge, not just about another but about ourselves. To see our lives as a fiction we have written and believed. Silence and lies. The sensation I felt that evening – that I did not know my Holland, did not know myself, that it was perhaps impossible to know a single soul on earth – it was a fearful loneliness.
Her observations thereafter, introspective reflections from shattered glass. Bitter-sweet as she relives her history with her husband and observes the obvious tenderness between him and their sick son, all the while planning her escape. The tension within her building to the denouement, which is written with such exquisite timing that Greer really should have stopped at the final sentence of page 182, a perfect counterpoint to Pearlie’s opening words.
What is one to make of love?
The last 13 pages added nothing for me and I’m looking forward to asking Greer why he thought they were necessary at the forthcoming Edinburgh Book Festival. Even so, it’s a minor quibble with a novel which may well end up being my read of the year.