CBR11bingo: Rainbow Flag
I decided to read something by Andrew Sean Greer for the Rainbow Flag square on the strength of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Less, which I read and loved last year. The Story of a Marriage is a very different novel, at least in tone. Where Less is sly and sharp and very funny, The Story of a Marriage is just a bit too earnest for its own good.
The Story of a Marriage takes place in 1953 and focuses on Pearlie Cook, a black housewife in San Francisco who takes care of her husband Holland, a veteran with a delicate heart condition, and son “Sonny,” who has polio. They live in a figurative fog reminiscent of the literal San Francisco weather. Their marriage isn’t exactly typical due to Holland’s “condition,” but it’s adequate. One day an old friend of Holland’s named Buzz shows up and changes everything. Buzz tells Pearlie that he and Holland had met in a hospital during the war and they were, for a time, lovers. Not only that, but Buzz still loves Holland and wants Pearlie to help convince her husband to be with him. Such news understandably shatters the image Pearlie has had of her marriage: “The sensation I felt that evening–that I did not know my Holland, did not know myself, that it was perhaps impossible to know a single soul on earth–it was a fearful loneliness.”
Love, loneliness, and desire are principal themes in the novel, but as my review title indicates, it’s also about war. That quote goes on to say, “Not an ordinary story of men in battle but of those who did not go to war. The cowards and shirkers; those who let an error keep them from their duty, those who saw it and hid, those who stood up and refused it.” We learn that the male characters in this story have secrets: that Holland hid from the draft with help from his mother and Pearlie, until the draft board caught up with him; that Buzz was a conscientious objector who ended up in a worse kind of hell, in a government-funded study on starvation; that William Platt, another young man with ties to the main characters, managed to avoid being drafted due to a clerical error that was only rectified as the Korean War was coming to an end.
In some ways, this novel tries to be too much to too many people. A wife’s duty is underscored when Pearlie contemplates the plight of Ethel Rosenberg, who was convicted and electrocuted as a spy because she stayed silent in the face of her husband’s treason. “Delinquent wives will hasten our ruin. And so she had to die,” Pearlie ponders. The struggles of being a man and being unable to express emotion also get a fair shake, as when Pearlie watches Holland staring into space and thinks, “What a strange, sad thing to be a man. How awful to be beaten by life as much as anyone and yet never be allowed to mention how it feels.” Pearlie and Holland are black, so that struggle figures into the story as well. So, yeah, life is tough all over.
Surprisingly, the struggles that Buzz faces as a homosexual seem to get the least consideration. The narrator is a 1953 housewife, so perhaps that’s understandable; however, I remembered a line from Less and can’t help wondering whether reactions to this novel may have inspired it. In one scene in Less, a friend of Arthur Less calls him a “bad gay” for not being a better advocate through his novels. The friend says, “[your novel] was beautiful. So full of sorrow. But so incredibly self-hating. A man washes ashore on an island and has a gay affair for years. But then he leaves to find his wife! You have to do better. For us.” That’s not exactly what happens in The Story of a Marriage, but I can see where that type of criticism might have arisen from the novel and perhaps prompted Greer to respond.
I’m still eager to read more from Andrew Sean Greer, but if you’re new to him, give this one a pass and go buy Less instead.