"... a lover exists only in fragments, a dozen or so if the romance is new, a thousand if we've married him, and out of those fragments our heart constructs an entire person. What we each create, since whatever is missing is filled in by our imagination, is the person we wish him to be. The less we know him, of course, the more we love him. And that's why we always remember that first rapturous night when he was a stranger, and why this rapture returns only when he is dead."
For Pearlie Cook, as for many women
of the 1950s, her marriage is everything. It's how
she orients herself to the world, the filter through
which everything passes, her purpose and her pride.
When Buzz, an old friend from her husband's past,
walks into their life, he reveals secrets beyond
Pearlie's wildest imaginings, turning her world
upside-down and blotting out her North Star.
Completely unmoored but still in love with the man
she thought she knew, she struggles out the next six
months in isolation with her feelings and
ruminations, aching to understand, to escape, to
reason, and to reconcile herself with a new version
of her marriage, a reinvention of her life for
herself and her child. As Pearlie reveals the little
side-stories of their marriage, the seeds of their
relationship and the stories she told herself to
make it grow, she tugs at ideas about how much her
life and her marriage are comprised of a series of
stories and assumptions, things she has possibly
invented to fulfill her desires. But despite its
contemplative, intimate qualities, The Story of a
Marriage is also an emotionally and dramatically
suspenseful page-turner, one that inspires
open-mouthed revelations and causes us to question
our own assumptions as Pearlie questions hers. In a
way, you can read this book as a fable about a
marriage drawn out to some of its most difficult
conclusions, an allegory for any married pair and
the great mystery that looms between them, and an
eye-opening antidote to the fairy tales that
reinforce our collective vision of the 1950s as a
more innocent time.
Some readers may find the plot a tad dramatic or even implausible, but Andrew Sean Greer shapes Pearlie Cook's voice so vividly that I couldn't help but believe her. Greer's prose is so gorgeous that the whole novel is worth reading (and re-reading) for its beauty alone. In brief, evocative metaphors ("[his aunts] arranged themselves in his life like cats unhelpfully placing themselves in the fold of an unmade bed") and Perlie's longer, almost philosophical musings on the nature of love and marriage, Greer's talents as a wordsmith and a careful observer elicit beauty from a painful, difficult story. Greer's prose acts as an interesting counterpoint to the suspenseful plot, a lush slowness imposed on a swift dramatic arc, and its exactly what gives The Story of a Marriage its deep resonance and legs.
With prose so fine it demands slow savoring, and a plot so intriguing it demands breathless page-turning, The Story of a Marriage also serves as a gorgeous meditation on romantic partnership, the great mystery of knowing another, and what knowing someone really means. It's a novel that invites open-ended pondering, reconstructed theories, a-ha!-moments, and meaty discussions. Just when you think you've figured it out, out pops another brilliant star or passing cloud to alter the constellation. Which is, come to think of it, kind of like a marriage.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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