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Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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A-The Story of a MarriageAndrew Sean Greer’s second novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2004), found a place on many "Best of 2004" lists and earned the author comparisons to Gogol, Kafka, Nabakov, and Proust. His third novel receives similar acclaim.

The Story: Pearlie, a young African American woman, relocates to San Francisco after World War II, where she reconnects with Holland Cook, her childhood crush from rural Kentucky and a former soldier. She marries him despite a warning that he has "bad blood, a crooked heart." When their son comes down with polio, Pearlie takes it in stride, grateful that his disability will keep him safe from the draft. But then a wealthy white businessman from Holland’s past appears on their doorstep, and Pearlie learns a secret about her fragile, shell-shocked husband. Soon, she discovers that life, love, and marriage are never as perfect as they seem.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 196 pages. $22. ISBN: 0374108668

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s too good to put down and yet each passage is also too good to leave behind . … 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." Deborah Vankin

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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 . … Greer has an intrepid imagination, an uncanny ability to bring the past to rumbling life and a surprising mastery of tension." Connie Ogle

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"From the beginning of this inspired, lyrical novel, the reader is pulled along by the attentive voice of Pearlie . … Mr. Greer’s considerable gifts as a storyteller ascend to the heights of masters like Marilynne Robinson and William Trevor." S. Kirk Walsh

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he chronicle of one marriage, closely and elegantly examined . … The Story of a Marriage is more than worth the reader’s attention. It’s thoughtful, complex and exquisitely written." Carolyn See

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"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 . … The Story of a Marriage is a neat little package about one couple that was forced to face them." Ellen Emry Heltzel

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[W]ondrously unsettling . … Greer’s rich prose is filled with Poe-like symbols (there’s even a sinister bird) as well as sudden, terrifying illuminations and semi-surreal encounters, many of which take place in a hellish amusement park." Maggie Scarf

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"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. … [M]y main problem was with the prose, which too often felt showy and self-consciously literary." Troy Jollimore

St. Petersburg Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Greer had the perfect script in hand, but his tendency to avoid conflict at all costs kills the novel. … For Pearlie’s sacrificial self to hold any meaning, the book ought to have built a crescendo, ideally involving some action." Vikram Johri

Critical Summary

The Story of a Marriage 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," notes the Los Angeles Times, and most critics agree. Greer strips away our shared illusions of a midcentury American paradise and shows readers scenes missing from popular culture’s nostalgic portrayals of the 1950s, including racial and political tension, the reality of past and future war, and marital silence and discord. Although one critic faults the slow plot and another disparages Greer’s prose and "unknowable" characters, the majority offer only a chorus of praise.