What We Do for Love

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, May 9, 2008


By Andrew Sean Greer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 195 pp. $22

"The Story of a Marriage" is just that, the chronicle of one marriage, closely and elegantly examined. It's set in San Francisco's Sunset District, an area of tract houses put up quickly in the '50s after World War II, but the story spans the war itself and continues until roughly the present. Considering that Andrew Sean Greer is the author of the wildly imaginative "Confessions of Max Tivoli," whose hero ages backward, and which is written in a burnished prose that John Updike compared to Nabokov's, it will come as no surprise that the new novel is built on several narrative surprises that cannot (or should not) be revealed. So this will be a hard review to write.

It's safe to say, though, that the book's concerns include the nature of wartime heroism: Is it more courageous to go off and fight because the authorities tell you to, or is it braver to refrain, even if that's not the popular thing to do? What if you're just not up for war? What if you don't feel like it? What if you know that you've been designated as cannon fodder from the very beginning? Or what if you're drafted against your will, sent out in harm's way and gravely wounded? Do you qualify as a hero then? "The Story of a Marriage" looks at these questions from the vantage points of both World War II and Vietnam, and the answers as well as the suppositions are fascinating.

But that's only one aspect of this story. The real question is: What's stronger in the long run: the languid, predictable, often quite dull rituals of domesticity (the school lunches made day after day, the clean linen hung out to dry, the double whiskeys drunk together when the husband comes home day after day) or the passionate, untidy, sometimes violent love that shakes us to our bones and upends families like a 10-point earthquake?

Think about this in terms of "Casablanca," certainly not the earliest prototype but perhaps the one that lingers uppermost in our minds. Who would be better for Ilsa in the long run: Rick, who glowers in his glittering nightclub, pitching fits at the mere sound of Ilsa's name; or Victor Laszlo, who dresses in white, walks through the narrative with the innocence of a bride and asks Ilsa to stand by him as he helps build a better world? Consider all the petulant wives (or husbands) who have inaugurated the sour Chapter 2 of their own marriages by announcing -- as though they've invented the idea -- "I still love you, of course, but I'm not in love with you!" In other words, don't expect any fun anymore in our whole life together! It's nothing but clean rolled socks and meatloaf from here on in!

"The Story of a Marriage" is told from a slightly different perspective. In the year 1953, Pearlie Cook has already been married to the handsome Holland for a few years. She describes him in the expected ways: "He kissed me goodbye every morning at eight and hello every evening at six; he worked hard to provide for us all; he had nearly lost his life for his country." Pearlie and Holland live in the Sunset District at a time when the milkman and the iceman still deliver. It is a time still so un-modern that their only son has come down with polio. Pearlie does her wifely work and, despite her son's illness, loves her life.

Then, one fateful afternoon, a man knocks on the door. Buzz Drummer -- rich, charming, handsome -- comes back into their lives. It's like Gatsby returning to claim Daisy for his own, or Bogart knocking on Bergman's door as she mixes martinis at the end of the day. "Let's not just remember Paris! Let's grab a plane and go there right now!"

Buzz makes a love-struck offer and gives the couple six months to think about it. He'll provide the one who stays home with the child his considerable fortune, more than enough to put the poor boy with polio through the best schools. Buzz, in turn, will be able to run off with the other partner, the one he has loved for years.

Strangely, Pearlie and Holland never speak about this offer directly. This is plausible in part because their marriage has been woven through with unstated facts, events remembered by them both but better left unstated, circumstances that -- when you think about them -- become as plain as day, so the best way to deal with them is not to think about them at all. Marriage or, indeed, any human alliance, the author seems to say, is jury-rigged at best. And when personal love becomes connected to a set of larger ideals like patriotism, sometimes lies outweigh the truth. Underneath valor may lie venality or cowardice, but much more often despair and deep grief.

This is a plot that deepens as surprises explode unexpectedly and terrifyingly. "The Story of a Marriage" is more than worth the reader's attention. It's thoughtful, complex and exquisitely written.

Sunday in Book World

· Roger Mudd in "The Place to Be."

· Barbara Walters's close-up "Audition."

· Cokie Roberts's rousing "Ladies of Liberty."

· A creepy tale of a totalitarian childhood.

· Plus a passel of picture books, nonfiction and novels for kids.

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