'The Story of a Marriage'

  • Article by: ELLEN EMRY HELTZEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2008 - 2:35 PM

Pearlie Cook has ignored her aunts' advice ("Don't marry him!"), and tensions begin to surface in her post-World War II suburban marriage and home.

Mental images of the post-World War II era are not in sepia tones, but they might as well be. Drawn from the black-and-white TV screens that became the bonding glue for a nation, they are full of smiles and laughter, befitting the peaceful, prosperous interlude between Korea and Vietnam.

But novelists have been heavy on revisionism of late. In the same mood as Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" and Thomas Mallon's more recent "Fellow Travelers," Andrew Sean Greer gives a less benign view of the period in his latest book, "The Story of a Marriage." Here problems that were never seen on a '50s sitcom come home to roost for one young family.

Greer ("The Confessions of Max Tivoli") sets up his novel with Pearlie Cook's mental inventory of the vine-covered Bay Area home she shares with her handsome, hardworking husband and Sonny, their healthy young son: "A house with a yard; a bedroom my son didn't have to share; carpets and folding blinds and even a place behind the bathroom mirror for Holland to drop his razor blades." And a dog, of course. Picture the Cooks in the kind of middle-class neighborhood that burgeoned during the 1950s, complete with pets, bikes and well-tended gardens.

But why is the lady of the house taking stock? To rebut, in her own mind, an earlier warning from the two aunts-in-law who serve as the story's Greek chorus. "Don't marry him!" they told her four years before. But Pearlie ignored them. Smitten with Holland, her quiet and sensitive former schoolmate, she marveled at her stroke of luck when they were reunited after the war.

To tell what the aunts saw and understood would give the story away, and that would ruin Greer's deliberate design, which lets your frilly-apron assumptions paint the scene before he gradually rips it apart. He uses Pearlie and her blinkered point of view to hide the tensions that gradually surface in his story.

Greer works his dough by making Pearlie a product of her time as much as her own personality: With no therapist, much less a Betty Friedan to ask why she's blue, and a horde of advertisers to say what will make her happy, Pearlie defines her role in homemaking terms. In her world, it's hard to see the forest for the trees, much less the trees for the Spic and Span.

"Poor Ethel," she sighs, considering the Rosenbergs and how one wife's loyalty to her husband led to Sing Sing and the electric chair.

Holland puts down his newspaper and dismisses such talk: "Colored folks got their own problems," he says.

This is Greer's cue that the Cooks don't look like other families on the block and why they aren't fraternizing with their neighbors. The author gradually busts your expectations in another way, too: When Holland's wartime friend, Buzz, shows up at the door, it becomes clear that they had been more than just friends. Mimicking the times, Greer plays coy with the reader to underline how racial and sexual tensions lie beneath the surface.

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. They were just put out of view while the country took a breath.

"The Story of a Marriage" is a neat little package about one couple that was forced to face them.

Ellen Emry Heltzel of Portland, Ore., is one-half of the Book Babes and coauthor of the forthcoming "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

  • THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE

    By: Andrew Sean Greer.

    Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pages, $22.

    Review: A carefully crafted novel of domestic family life that will effectively shatter any frilly-apron perceptions of 1950s America.

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