July 16, 2008

Andrew Sean Greer: The Story of a Marriage

Posted in Greer Andrew Sean at 8:00 am by John Self

I didn’t intend to read Andrew Sean Greer’s novel The Story of a Marriage until I read a hat trick of rave reviews from trusted bloggers dovegreyreader, Lizzy Siddal and Kirsty. They loved it to a man (that is, woman), and I decided I had to see what all the fuss was about. Then I saw Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook take a somewhat different line – “mawkish tapestry of cliché,” was it? – and there’s a spirited set-to between him and dovegreyreader on her blog link above which is well worth reading. Now I definitely had to see what all the fuss was about.

The Story of a Marriage

The first thing to say about The Story of a Marriage is that there’s very little I can say about it without spoiling it for anyone else fuss-curious. This is because the book contains a series of revelations – or perhaps the comedic word reveal would be more appropriate – which mean that it’s impossible even to say what the main subjects of the story are without giving one or two away. The second thing to say is that Greer has – rare enough these days – kept his story down to fewer than 200 pages. Such restraint is admirable, particularly – and here’s my reveal – as it means I wasted less of my time reading the book than I otherwise might have.

I’m reluctant to make this post into a simple catalogue of my criticisms of the book, though that might be inevitable, as there isn’t much I can think of that I liked about it. This doesn’t mean there isn’t anything I liked, but often a tipping point is reached during the reading of a book, where my view is crystallised and becomes fixed. So I will tend to notice more things that support that view, and overlook aspects that don’t. I can still see that many of the things that bothered me will actually have delighted other readers, and will have had them drumming their heels in merriment even as they had me rolling my eyes.

For example, Greer’s language some will find beautiful -

Perhaps you cannot see a marriage. Like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the naked 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.

- whereas for my tastes it was portentous and overdone. I also had initial doubts about this mannered voice, supposedly that of a 1950s housewife, but this is explained as our narrator, Pearlie, being well read – “he loved that I ‘talked like a book,'” she tells us on page 2. He is Holland Cook, her husband, and it is her marriage to him which is the story in question.

It is 1953: we know this is the year because Pearlie keeps telling us, and throws in relentless references to the events of the time, which begins to resemble Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire':

It was 1953, and weeks before we had all watched on television as President Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were sworn in… We watched that inauguration, full of worries about the Korean War, race issues, the Rosenbergs, the Communists hidden everywhere around us, the Russian bombs being prepared…

She also drops Wedding Singer-like references to contemporary technology – her dishwasher gets a mention three times in the first dozen pages – which to me was a sign of laziness. If an era is evoked only by explicit references like these, is it really being evoked at all? Books with a similar setting, written closer to the time – say, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road – don’t need it.

Pearlie and Holland are about to have their happy union cracked open by the appearance of Buzz, an old friend of Holland’s from during the war. This is where the undisclosable revelations begin, and even though I didn’t like the book, I’m not about to spoil anyone else’s enjoyment. So instead let me work around it and say why I thought the story was badly told.

It is the revelations that are the primary problem, or at least symptomatic of the primary problem. They are timed well – too well, often coming just after the turn of a page and at the end of a chapter – and Pearlie withholds information that she would naturally be expected to tell, purely to keep the reader in suspense and surprise them. To me, this is dishonest, and shows clearly that the person telling the story is not Pearlie Cook but Andrew Sean Greer (whose name, sure enough, looms down over the text on every other page). The whole book feels like an exercise in overturning the reader’s expectations, and at times I could almost hear the pop of the cap of Greer’s pen as he sat back with a satisfied sigh at his own cleverness. Dammit, he is clever, but it sits uncomfortably with Pearlie’s heartfelt narrative and confused innocence. It’s artificial, and while I like a bit of artifice – I’m a big fan of Martifice Amis – this is important because each time I was reminded of Greer’s presence, I was distanced from Pearlie’s story emotionally and intellectually.

This brings me back to elements which others will have loved but I didn’t at all. Pearlie’s husband, Holland, is less a presence than an absence. Is this bold way of defining a character by the space around him – a sort of literary Rachel Whiteread sculpture – which reflects the silent oppression of people like Pearlie and Buzz (“We were born in the wrong time”), or is it a lack of effort on Greer’s part to draw a third character into the triangle? And are the other details (a significantly mute dog, for example) brave or just silly?

Now I feel bad for going on so much about what I didn’t like in the book. So on the plus side, The Story of a Marriage is readable and kept me turning the pages easily to the end. Greer can pull a nice phrase out of the hat – city lights at night are compared to a chandelier – and the issues covered are sincerely intended and always worth exploring. But – sorry, here I go again – pretty much all these issues were also addressed, in the same setting, in Todd Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven. That was a pastiche of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, and melodrama is what The Story of a Marriage felt like to me. There were other interesting moments of déjà vu, such as a character who got out of war the very same (unusual) way that Johnny Wheelwright did in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and a scene (one of the end-of-chapter revelations) where Pearlie reacts unexpectedly in exactly the same way to exactly the same sort of bad news as Brenda Last in a pivotal scene in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Two more good points then: it reminded me about a couple of books I enjoyed much more.

This is an unusual review, because while I have almost no positive things to say about The Story of a Marriage, it’s clearly a book which will polarise opinion and there’s every chance that you will love it as much as my fellow bloggers did above.  (Indeed, this is an unusual review in that it may not mean very much unless you’ve read the book.)  So read their reviews too and – why not? – read the book, and make up your own mind. Just – ahem – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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17 Comments »

  1. Mark Thwaite said,

    Well, as you know John, I agree with you absolutely (and if memory serves there was a negative review of The Story of a Marriage in the Guardian last week, so the tide is changing, and more are agreeeing with us!) that this is hugely overrated.

    Actually, I’ve been using the Far From Heaven analogy myself too: so we are certainly of one mind about this!

    Actually, I don’t agree with you absolutely — I was quite happy that Holland was merely an absent presence, but that hardly saves the book. And, like you, I’m happy with artifice, but I’m not happy with the massive distance between ASG’s artifice and Pearlie’s supposed emotional honesty. That distance makes the novel itself peculiarly dishonest (this being underscored by those oh-so-well timed reveals).

    The more I think about this book the more I think it is very, very bad indeed. It perfectly encapsulates the Establishment Literary Fiction novel: showy, but empty and created in bad faith. Grrrrrrrrr.

  2. Wow Mark! You managed to describe Establishment Literary Fiction wonderfully! Much better than merely saying pretentious: created in bad faith – excellent! I’ll gladly steer clear of this one.

  3. Tom Cunliffe said,

    The perennial problem of reviewing, without spoiling – masterfully handled by you here. I am almost tempted, particularly as its no more than 200 pages.

  4. Isabel said,

    How does it compare to On Chesil Beach?

    Both seem sparse.

  5. JRSM said,

    “..but often a tipping point is reached during the reading of a book, where my view is crystallised and becomes fixed. So I will tend to notice more things that support that view, and overlook aspects that don’t. I can still see that many of the things that bothered me will actually have delighted other readers, and will have had them drumming their heels in merriment even as they had me rolling my eyes.”

    I’ve never heard this described so well. There needs to ba word, Meaning-of-Liff-like, for this moment.

  6. Stewart said,

    There needs to ba word, Meaning-of-Liff-like, for this moment.

    Seangry? The Seangrier the better.

  7. sara said,

    A spot-on review in my opinion.

    (And this one is so hard to review because the interesting things in the novel are spoilerific!)

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Stewart, you are really in mot juste mode at the moment!

    Mark and Trevor, I agree about ‘created in bad faith’. It strikes me that a Jeffrey Archer novel, in an odd way, has more integrity than this book. (As you can see, a corollary of the moment which JRSM comments on, is that once the view is crystallised, it becomes harder and more extreme as time goes by after reading the book, even though no further evidence has arisen to support the view… )

    Isabel, On Chesil Beach is an interesting comparison. I found it disappointing but it was much better than The Story of a Marriage. Both however shared the position of being narrated from a distance, looking back over a period of decades. I think McEwan justifies this whereas Greer absolutely doesn’t (for reasons which, once more, can’t be gone into without spoiling the outcome).

    Tom, if you do read it I’ll look forward to your thoughts. It’s certainly a book which inspired passions one way or the other. (Nice to see your interview in the Book Depository Editor’s Corner this week by the way!)

  9. Victoria said,

    I read this over the last weekend and have somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand I agree with you entirely as to the book’s faults (and I absolutely loathed the ending!); on the other, I found myself warming to it in spite of fact that I knew I was being emotionally manipulated. I intend to write a review for Alexandria in the near future. :-)

  10. kimbofo said,

    Hmmmm… interesting. Do I take the plunge and see for myself, or do I steer clear of it?

  11. [...] encourage others to check out some of the other reviews, particularly the ones at Asylum, dovegreyreader (including the comments), Lizzy’s Literary Life, and Eve’s Alexandria. [...]

  12. [...] There are surprises to be unveiled, and here there is contrast with Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage; Barry’s revelations are natural because they are discovered (or recovered) by the narrators [...]

  13. [...] John Self [...]

  14. [...] This is one of those points where the reviewer must withdraw before spoiling the story, but it is appropriate to say that the development of the narrative is intriguing and strange, bringing into question how much is real or representative of Eric’s state of mind, and whether it is willed or coincidental.  What is less satisfying is the way when a man’s name – Dr Avery Stiles – enters the story and Eric professes not to know who he is, yet soon after he gives us a very detailed account of Stiles’ role in his life (which the story turns on).  Is this supposed to represent repressed, traumatised memories coming to the surface?  Or is it a cheap authorial trick, like Andrew Sean Greer’s carefully plotted detonations in The Story of a Marriage? [...]

  15. [...] looks like a naughty bit of narrative sleight of hand (remember Andrew Sean Greer’s egregious Story of a Marriage?) appears when Szalay takes us into a character’s thoughts but then withholds the identity [...]

  16. [...] Asylum – “The whole book feels like an exercise in overturning the reader’s expectations, and at times I could almost hear the pop of the cap of Greer’s pen as he sat back with a satisfied sigh at his own cleverness. Dammit, he is clever, but it sits uncomfortably with Pearlie’s heartfelt narrative and confused innocence.” [...]

  17. […] This is one of those points where the reviewer must withdraw before spoiling the story, but it is appropriate to say that the development of the narrative is intriguing and strange, bringing into question how much is real or representative of Eric’s state of mind, and whether it is willed or coincidental. What is less satisfying is the way when a man’s name – Dr Avery Stiles – enters the story and Eric professes not to know who he is, yet soon after he gives us a very detailed account of Stiles’ role in his life (which the story turns on). Is this supposed to represent repressed, traumatised memories coming to the surface? Or is it a cheap authorial trick, like Andrew Sean Greer’s carefully plotted detonations in The Story of a Marriage? […]


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