Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Story of a Marriage.
Greer’s exquisite novel is written in the voice of Pearlie Cook, a young wife and mother who lives quietly with her devastatingly handsome husband, Holland, and a polio-afflicted young son on the outskirts of San Francisco, where the dampness of the Pacific Ocean ushers in a heavy mist that most days obscures both sun and sunset.
Pearlie has a long and complicated history with her husband. Having met Holland when she was sixteen, his response to his draft notice is unusual, to say the least, Pearlie the focus of endlessly long days until his abrupt entrance to the Second World War. Once parted, buffeted by the hazards of combat, Holland is delivered to a hospital where he slowly recovers.
Pearlie writes faithfully to this boy who has captured her heart, but he never responds. She leaves Kentucky for San Francisco, eking out a solitary existence over time until she stumbles, unbelievably, upon Holland, sitting on a bench near the cable car tracks. Two months later he whispers, “Pearlie, I need you to marry me.”
So begins Pearlie’s undemanding early married years, despite the Misses Cook, Holland’s twin spinster cousins, who warn her of Holland’s fatal illness, an incurable damaged heart. Absent explanation, Pearlie chooses her own interpretation: “I was a careful woman, a good gardener, and I pruned away the doubt.”
By the time a stranger, Charles “Buzz” Drumer, appears on her doorstep, claiming friendship with Holland from their time in the war, Pearlie has settled into routine domesticity, diligently protecting her husband from his faulty heart, even buying the family a barkless dog that will not disturb Holland as he sleeps in his separate bedroom.
But Buzz changes all that, Pearlie’s careful construction, with whispered promises of $100,000 and a grand scheme. Never asking much from life, Pearlie is confused when Buzz calls her beautiful, aware that she has no defenses against this sophisticated, successful businessman who asks more than she is prepared to give.
Although the end of the Korean conflict is near in 1953, there are vestiges of war everywhere in this novel, the ghosts of the dead, vociferous patriotism demanding sacrifices of weary citizens. There are problems: a polio epidemic ravages the homes of unsuspecting victims, children bent and crippled; the Rosenburg trial for treason, where Ethel Rosenburg stands mute beside her accused husband; enforced segregation and the subtle humiliations of racism; and the rabid attacks of a Senate committee drumming out suspected communists from every walk of life.
No, 1953 is not the idyllic youth of contemporary America, merely another phase in the evolution of social change and post-war recovery efforts. All is distilled into a terrible decision in Pearlie’s home, Buzz breaching her defenses, forcing her to peer into the darkness she has chosen to ignore, to make an unbearable choice. Greer’s depiction of this woman’s life is precise and intimate, brutally honest, a wife caught in the confluence of men’s desires, unable to ask the right questions even when faced with a wrenching loss. In a “war story of men who did not go to war,” Pearlie is an extraordinary character, the heart of a marriage and the soul of a tumultuous country.