The Story of a Marriage

The Story of a Marriage

by Andrew Sean Greer
The Story of a Marriage

The Story of a Marriage

by Andrew Sean Greer

Paperback(First Edition)

$17.00 
  • SHIP THIS ITEM
    Qualifies for Free Shipping
  • PICK UP IN STORE
    Check Availability at Nearby Stores

Related collections and offers


Overview

A Novel from the Pulitzer Prize-Winning author of LESS
A
Today Show Summer Reads Pick
A Washington Post Book of the Year

“Inspired, lyrical . . . Mr. Greer's considerable gifts as a storyteller ascend to the heights of masters like Marilynne Robinson and William Trevor. . . . [He] seamlessly choreographs an intricate narrative that speaks authentically to the longings and desires of his characters.” —S. Kirk Walsh, The New York Times

"We think we know the ones we love." So Pearlie Cook begins her indirect, and devastating exploration of the mystery at the heart of every relationship—how we can ever truly know another person.

It is 1953 and Pearlie, a dutiful young housewife, finds herself living in the Sunset District in San Francisco, caring not only for her husband's fragile health, but also for her son, who is afflicted with polio. Then, one Saturday morning, a stranger appears on her doorstep, and everything changes. Lyrical, and surprising, The Story of a Marriage is, in the words of Khaled Housseini, "a book about love, and it is a marvel to watch Greer probe the mysteries of love to such devastating effect."


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312428280
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/31/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 656,919
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of five works of fiction, including The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was named a Best Book of the Year by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. He is the recipient of the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, the O Henry Award for Short Fiction, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Public Library. Greer lives in San Francisco.

Hometown:

San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

November 21, 1970

Place of Birth:

Washington, D.C.

Education:

B.A. in English, Brown University, 1992; M.F.A . in Fiction, University of Montana, 1996

Read an Excerpt

We think we know the ones we love.

Our husbands, our wives. We know them—we are them, sometimes; when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions, their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them. We watch their tics of conversation, of driving and dressing, how they touch a sugar cube to their coffee and stare as it turns white to brown, then drop it, satisfied, into the cup. I watched my own husband do that every morning; I was a vigilant wife.

We think we know them. We think we love them. 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. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?

One morning we awaken. Beside us, that familiar sleeping body in the bed: a new kind of stranger. For me, it came in 1953. That was when I stood in my house and saw a creature merely bewitched with my husband’s face.

Perhaps you cannot see a marriage. Like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the human eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it. That is how I think of it. That I must look at everything around it, all the hidden stories, the unseen parts, so that somewhere in the middle—turning like a dark star—it will reveal itself at last.

The story of how I met my husband; even that’s not simple. We met twice: once in our Kentucky hometown, and once on a beach in San Francisco. It was a joke for our whole marriage, that we were strangers twice.

I was a teenager when I fell in love with Holland Cook. We grew up in the same farming community, where there were plenty of boys to love—at that age I was like those Amazonian frogs, bright green, oozing emotion from every pore—but I caught no one’s eye. Other girls had boys falling over them, and although I did my hair just like them and ripped the trim off attic dresses and sewed it on my hems, it did no good. My skin began to feel like clothing I had outgrown; I saw myself as tall and gawky; and as no one ever told me I was beautiful—neither my mother nor my disapproving father—I decided that I must be plain.

So when a boy came along who actually met my eyes, who showed up along my walk from school and got himself invited in for a slice of bread, I didn’t know what to make of him. I could tell he wanted something. For some reason I thought it was help on his schoolwork, so I always went to great pains to hide my notebooks and not sit next to him in class; I wouldn’t be used like a crib sheet. But of course that wasn’t what he wanted; he was always good in school. He never said what he wanted, in fact, not in all the years I knew him, but you do not judge a man by what he says. You judge him by what he does, and one clear bright night in May when we walked by the strawberry patch, he held my hand all the way to Childress. That’s all it took, just the briefest touch, in those days when I wore my nerves outside my skin like lace. Of course I lost my heart.

I was there with Holland in World War Two. He loved that I “talked like a book” and not like any of the other girls, and when the time finally came for him to go into the army, I watched him step onto that bus and head to war. It was a lonely grief for a young girl.

It never occurred to me that I could leave as well, not until a government man walked up to our house and asked for me by name. I tromped down in my faded sundress to find a very ruddy and clean-shaven man wearing a lapel pin of the Statue of Liberty in gold; I coveted it terribly. His name was Mr. Pinker. He was the kind of man you were supposed to obey. He talked to me about jobs in California, how industries wanted strong women like me. His words—they were rips in a curtain, revealing a vista to a world I had never imagined before: airplanes, California; it was like agreeing to travel to another planet. After I thanked the man, he said, “Well then, as thanks you can do a favor for me.” To my young mind, it seemed like nothing special at all.

“Now that sounds like the first bright idea you ever had,” my father said when I mentioned leaving. I can’t find any memory in which he held my gaze as long as he did that day. I packed my bags and never saw Kentucky again.

On the bus ride to California, I studied the mountains’ ascent into a line of clouds and saw where, as if set upon those clouds, even higher mountains loomed. I had never seen a sight like that in all my life. It was as if the world had been enchanted all along and no one told me.

As for the favor the man asked of me, it was perfectly simple: he just wanted me to write letters. About the girls around me in the shipyard and the planes and conversations I overheard, everyday rituals: what we ate, what I wore, what I saw. I laughed to think what good it would do him. Now I can only laugh at myself—the government must have been looking for suspicious activities, but he didn’t tell me that. He told me to pretend I was keeping a diary. I did my duty; I did it even when I left my first job to become a WAVE—only a few other girls from a community like mine—spreading Noxzema on our pimply faces, the girls’ rears shaking to the radio, getting used to Coke instead of rationed coffee and Chinese food instead of hamburgers. I sat there every night and tried to write it all down, but I found my own life lacking; it hardly seemed worth telling. Like so many people, I was deaf to my own stories. So I made them up.

My life wasn’t interesting to me, but I’d read books that were, and that is what I put down, with details stolen from Flaubert and Ford and Ferber, intrigues and sorrows and brief colorful joys: a beautiful work of fiction for my country held together with silence and lies. That is, it turns out, what holds a country together. I did my job well, in the handwriting my mother had taught me, tall and loyal and true, signed with the special slipknot P for Pearlie I invented at the age of nine, mailed to Mr. William Pinker, 62 Holly Street, Washington, D.C.

What did you do in the war, Grandma? I lied to my country, pretending to tattle on friends. I’m sure I was just one of thousands; I’m sure it was a clearinghouse for lonely hearts like me. Imagine the ad jingle: “Be a finker . . . for Mr. Pinker!”

Then the war ended, as did the factory work for women and our jobs as WAVEs. I had long since stopped writing my notes to Washington; there was so much else to worry about and I had my position doing piecework sewing to pay for meals. And one day, alone down by the ocean, I walked right by a sailor on a bench, sitting with his book facedown like a fig leaf on his lap, staring out to sea.

I knew very little about men, so I was startled to see such despair on his square handsome face. I knew him. The boy who’d held my hand all the way to Childress, whose heart I had, at least briefly, possessed. Holland Cook.

I said hello.

“Well hi there, Sarah, how’s the dog?” he said amiably. The wind stopped, as if, like Holland, it did not recognize me. Sarah was not my name.

We stayed there for a moment in the oyster-colored air, with his smile slowly sagging, my hand holding the flap of my coat to my throat, my bright kerchief tugging in the wind, and a sickness building in my stomach. I could have moved on; merely walked away so he would never know who I was. Just some strange girl fading into the fog.

But instead I said my name.

Then you recognized me, didn’t you, Holland? Your childhood sweetheart. Pearlie who’d read poetry to you, who’d taken piano lessons from your mother; that was the second time we met. A sudden memory of home, opening like a pop-up book. He chatted with me, he even made me laugh a little, and when I said I had no escort to the movies that Friday and asked if he would come, he paused a while before looking at me, saying quietly, “All right.”

I was shocked when he turned up at my rooming house. The low-watt bulbs revealed a weary man, hat in his hands, his skin a little ashen, his elegant necktie loosely knotted. He claimed, years later, that he couldn’t even remember what he or I wore that night: “Was it the green dress?” No, Holland; it was black roses on white; its pattern is framed and hung in my memory alongside our honeymoon wallpaper (pale green garlands). I thought he might be drunk; I was afraid he might collapse, but he smiled and offered his arm and after the film took me to a nice restaurant out in North Beach. At dinner, he hardly ate or spoke. He barely looked at me, or noticed the stares we got from other patrons; his own gaze was fixed on two cast-iron dogs that sat before the unlit fireplace. So after we had taken the streetcar to my corner, and it was time to say good night, I was surprised when he turned very quickly and kissed me on the mouth. An electric jolt of happiness passed through me. He stepped back, breathing quickly and buttoned his jacket to go. “I have to see a friend,” he told me sharply.

“Holland,” I said. He looked back at me as if I had jerked a string. “Holland,” I repeated. He waited. And then I said the right thing. It was the only time I ever did: “Let me take care of you.”

His deep eyes awakened. Did he think I meant to remind him of our time back in Kentucky, that I offered the soft threat of the past? A dark line appeared between his eyebrows.

He said, “You don’t know me, not really.”

I told him that didn’t matter, but what I meant was that he was wrong; I knew him, of course I knew all about him from that time in our constricting little hometown: the grass behind the schoolyard we used to poke with a stick, the path from Franklin to Childress cluttered with witch hazel and touch-me-nots and railroad vine, the ice shivering in a summer pitcher of his mother’s lemonade—the lost world that only I remembered. For here we were so far from home. The one we could never regain. Who could know him better than I?

I acted instinctively. All I wanted was to keep him there on the shining streetcar tracks. “Let me take care of you again.”

“You serious?” he asked.

“You know, Holland, I’ve never been kissed by any boy but you.”

“That ain’t true, it’s been years, Pearlie. So much has changed.”

“I haven’t changed.”

Immediately he took my shoulder and pressed his lips to mine.

Two months later, by those same cable-car tracks, he whispered: “Pearlie, I need you to marry me.” He told me that I didn’t really know his life, and of course he was right. Yet I married him. He was too beautiful a man to lose and I loved him.

Excerpted from The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Sean Greer. Published in April 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. How does your view of Pearlie and Holland change in the first course of reading Part I?
What were your assumptions about them on a first reading and how did they alter?
2. What was your reaction to Buzz's arrival on Pearlie's doorstep? And to the spped with which he becomes such a regular guest in Pearlie and Holland's home?
3. How does Buzz and Pearlie's relationship develop and change in the course of the novel?
Discuss what brings them together and separates them.
4. At one point it he novel, Pearlie says, "I am sure we each loved a different man. Because a lover exists only in fragments…" (p. 64). Do Pearlie and Buzz each know a different
Holland? Does Holland surprise you by the choice he finally makes?
5. "It was a medieval time for mothers," Pearlie tells us (p.14). How much does Pearlie's role as a wife and a caregiver define her? Do you think she could have responded differently to Buzz and his revelations?
6. How did you think about or remember the fifties before reading this novel? Why is it so often portrayed as a period of innocence, despite the polio epidemic, the Korean War, the
Red Scare, and segregation? Did the novel change the way you think about this period?
7. Pearlie tells us that she was a "finker for Mr. Pinker" (p. 120). What effect does that have on your view of her and your trust in her as a narrator?
8. "This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass. Not an ordinary story of men in battle but of those who did not go to way" (p. 156). Discuss the way the war affects Pearlie, Holland, Buzz, Annabel Platt, and William Platt.
9. How do the lives of Ethel Rosenberg and Eslanda Goode Robeson relate to Pearlie?
10. Why do you think Pearlie goes to the International Settlement? Does her view of homosexuality change in the course of the novel, and if so, how?
11. How did what happened in Kentucky shape both Pearlie and Holland? And how are they affected by the social changes that happen in the course of their lives?
12. How does Sonny's life differ from that of his parents?
13. "We think we know the ones we love…But what have we really understood?" (p.3). How do you think the novel answers that question?
14. Do you agree with Pearlie's decision at the end of novel not to meet Buzz? Why does she

prefer to walk out of the hotel and into the sunlight?

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews