by Andrew Sean Greer; New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 195 pages, $22
Dr. Bailey is clinical associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore.
The novel The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer is a beautifully written book, even lyrical at times. Its sentences are simple and clear, their meaning seemingly transparent. It is also, for the greater part, a devastatingly sad novel. I didn't want to read it—put off by the black-and-white dust jacket, annoyed by the pretentious and foreboding title. Maybe I was looking for a beach-read, and this book is definitely not that.
Despite my misgivings, I found within a few pages that the title word "marriage" captures much more than a picture of the intimate relationship between a man and a wife. The novel could just as easily be titled The Story of a War, or The Story of Great Wealth, Lost and Found, or The Story of Lies and Truths Unknown and Discovered. What is interesting about this book is how many surprises it offers and how many serious themes are explored in a mundane woman's life. These themes include love, race, war, sex, money, family, the great divide between Kentucky and California, the enormous distance between adolescence and adulthood, and the similarities of today and the 1950s. I say a "mundane" woman because that is how Pearlie, the main character, thinks of herself.
To say much more about this novel would be to give away what shouldn't be given—which, by the way, is another theme of the book, whether the giving is one's country, one's self, or someone else's soul. Naturally, since the novel is like a pearl itself—something beautiful, hard, and precious, buried beneath layers of gritty sand, shell, and flesh—another theme is what we must give, tear, even flail away from ourselves in order to find and save what we love. At the risk of sounding pretentious myself, I can only say I envy Greer for having written this novel.
The ending may surprise, relieve, or disappoint different readers. My own response was mixed. When I saw a couple today for marital counseling, I thought about my question upon closing Greer's book: how can two people knowing and living with each other, sharing a child, a bed, the breakfast table, fail so completely to understand one another? Yet the couple I was seeing, like the couple in Greer's novel, had never discovered how to ask each other about their greatest needs or their worst fears. They had not learned how to communicate.
Greer's novel will join the more standard texts on marital therapy on my bookshelf. I won't generally loan it to any patients because it is, at points, almost unbearably sad. But I will certainly give it to interested colleagues or students and sometimes glance myself at that dismal jacket with the embossed silver-pearl title.