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The Story of a Marriage: A Novel Hardcover – April 29, 2008

3.7 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. Though some readers may find it overly sentimental, 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.
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From Booklist

San Francisco in the 1950s may have seemed like a simpler time, but for African American wife and mother Pearlie Cook, it is anything but. Settled in the city’s Sunset District with her African American husband, Holland, she is wholly unprepared for the news imparted by a stranger who appears one Saturday morning at her door. He is Charles “Buzz” Drumer, a handsome white man who shared a room with Holland in a military hospital during World War II. (Holland had seen battle, Buzz had not. He was a conscientious objector, or, Pearlie wonders, was he just a coward?) Buzz’s astonishing admission (nope—not telling) and the request that follows rattle Pearlie’s peaceful world. She must make a heartbreaking decision, not only for herself, but for her polio-stricken son. Greer (The Confessions of Max Tivoli, 2004) sets this emotionally wrenching tale in a U.S. rife with strife—recovering from one war, mired in yet another, and grappling daily with the prickly issue of race. A haunting, thought-provoking novel about the liabilities of love. --Allison Block
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (April 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374108668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374108663
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.8 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,060,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It's relatively rare that I pick up a piece of non-genre contemporary American literature, my tastes just don't generally range that way. However, in this case, the cover caught my eye, and the jacket copy was promising enough to get me started. And once I dipped into the book, Greer's prose was more than enough to keep me reading all the way through. Even though the story is rather sparsely plotted, it brims with tension and intimacy until the very end, and I highly recommend it to readers who favor domestic dramas.

The story takes place in San Francisco, circa 1953, but not in the part of town books and films are usually set in. Rather, it mostly takes place in the Sunset, a neighborhood in the Western part of the city which rolls down from the hills to the Pacific (and one I once lived in, just off the same street as the protagonists). Narrated by Pearlie, the story tells of her childhood crush Holland, and her later marriage to him following WWII. It's clear from the start (and various oblique hints throughout) that there are some deep secrets in this story, both in terms of Holland, and in terms of the story itself. The first section ends with an attempt on the author's part to surprise the reader, although I suspect most (like myself) will have seen through the pretense quite early on.

The next section delves into Pearlie's attempt to understand Holland, who suffered some kind of unspecified injury during the war, leaving him with a "weak" heart. Her attempt to understand her husband is both aided and confused by the reappearance of his former boss, and this man's easy insertion into their life as their only friend. This builds up to a narrative revelation which pretty much every reader will have guessed long before Pearlie is let in on the secret.
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Format: Hardcover
I agree with those who found this novel lacking in depth and content. The central thesis of the novel just doesn't hold: how can Pearlie believe Buzz, with his story about an affair he had with her husband Holland, and never even mention it to him? I kept thinking thoughout the book that the author was going to make it clear that Buzz was creating this 'story' for some other purpose...but he doesn't; nor does anything ever happen between him and Holland. Pearlie never once reflects on her thoughts or feelings about homosexuality, and this is 1953!...but she does believe that her husband loved another person...improbable! I can believe that she would not speak about homosexuality, but she would certainly think about it, and the author does not reveal that in any way. Unlike the fantastic film Far From Heaven, attitudes about homosexuality, race and gender, are not explored from the cultural context of San Francisco 1953. Instead, Pearlie ponders the life of Ethel Rosenberg, a person quite unlike herself and her current life situation. I agree with the reader who noted that the author was unable to evoke a female, or black female character.
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The author tries to puff up his thin plotline with pretentious prose, leaving me, as a reader, with characters so poorly developed I failed in my attempts to care about them. The idea that a wife of some years would accept the word of a total stranger that she essentially should sell her husband to him, a self-described former lover, and that this same wife would never in a six month period ask her husband if he favors the "deal", or if he had anything more than an employer/employee relationship with the stranger, is preposterous. Also beyond belief is the plotline that has a young man crippled with polio, requiring braces to walk, having to flee to Canada to avoid the Vietnam war draft. Another foundational problem with the major plotline concerns the husband's failure to claim conscientious objector status during WWII when his draft board officer asked him if he were a CO and thus gives him the opportunity to avoid military service. A bright spot: the plus-perfect English spoken by all the female characters is a tribute to the San Francisco public school system, since none of them set foot in an institution of higher learning.
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Format: Hardcover
The Story of a Marriage examines the marriage of Pearlie and Holland Cook during a brief period of time in 1953. In many ways, the Cook's marriage is superficially ordinary, but, like most marriages, it's internally complicated and weighty: "like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the human eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it."

This quiet novel is full of self-awareness. The story is remarkably controlled, each detail playing a critical role. In precise and well-crafted prose, Greer reveals the flaws in our assumptions. Just when you think you've got the story figured out, Greer shows just how wrong you've been all along. The book begins with an appropriate warning:

"We think we know the ones we love. Our husbands, our wives. We know them--we are them, sometimes .... But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know. We try to get past it to the original, but we never can."

The Story of a Marriage is about the things we do to construct our view of another person. Ultimately, the person we think we know is nothing more than our own mind's reconciliation of the mysteries that make up another being:

"[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 Story of a Marriage is a masterpiece of the nuances of marriage. It's poignant and beautiful and well worth reading.
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