(Warning: spoiler alert. Subtle though they are, there are characteristics of character and story here that I believe the author meant to be revealed slowly as a part of plot and structure. To make a point later on, I reveal a bit of that here.)
THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE by Andrew Sean Greer (Picador, 2008) is just that, it’s the story of a marriage. It’s not the story of all marriage or of how a marriage should be, but spotlights the fact that every marriage, every relationship, is so personal and so unique that behind every door is a different story. That’s how it is in Sunset, the book’s setting, a community built outside of San Francisco for soldiers returning home from World War II. “ … and they built a grid of streets and low pastel houses with garages and Spanish roofs and picture windows that flashed with the appearance of the sun, all in rows for fifty avenues until you reached the ocean.”
Within the walls of every house on all fifty avenues, we get the sense that a different story – some happy, some sad, some violent or dramatic or just beginning or in the throws of dying – is taking place. The story Greer lays out for us, though, involves Pearlie and Holland Cook, and how their world is turned upside down when an old war buddy shows up out of the past, wanders into their lives out of the dense fog that hangs over the bay. It’s a riveting story and Greer is adept at giving just a hint of something to come in the next chapter or the next section, and it’s generally something unexpected.
While there is no way to ever know what goes on in someone else’s marriage, the small tragedies and bright flashes of happiness, Greer gets into the lives of his characters, into the mind of Pearlie Cook and what makes her tick or, rather, what she thinks makes her tick; it’s forever changing, it seems, as are the times of the early 1950s, and she struggles with this.
The book is a unique one and not easily labeled, which adds to the appeal for me. As I continue my search for an agent for a couple of novels I’ve written, I’m amazed by the many genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that fiction is placed into in an effort to buy and sell work. I use a website called querytracker.net and on its search page for agents and publishers just a few of the categories for fiction include action/adventure, chick lit, commercial fiction, family saga, general fiction, literary fiction, mystery fiction, romance, western and, of course, young adult. It’s daunting. It’s also a little ridiculous. I recently had some people tell me a book might not be for me because it’s “women’s fiction.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, that my brain, as full as it is of testosterone, football, hunting, Jason Statham movies and ball scratching wouldn’t be able to understand something as nuanced as discussions of menstruation, childbirth, hem lengths and pie making?
So, how to categorize THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE? The protagonist written by Greer, a white male, is a woman. So, it’s women’s lit. But she’s also black. So, it’s African-American lit. There is the theme of homosexuality in the book. Gay/Lesbian lit. Yet it takes place in 1953 and there is a lot of talk of WWII and the Korean War. Military lit … historical lit. The price sticker on the back of this Picador paperback, bought at the Borders going out of business sale a couple of years ago actually labels it as literary fiction.
Literature should be the great equalizer. The printing press itself was more of an impetus to equality than any other invention in our history, yet our books are pigeonholed. I’m not so naïve that I don’t understand why. I know literary agents need to describe a book in few words to sell it, and publishers need it branded before they’ll consider buying it. Bookstores need to know where in the store to place it and online sellers need to know whether to pair your purchase with a set of grill tools, a nursing bra or a pistol.
THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE is a book about love and hope and fear and loneliness and happiness, just as that women’s fiction novel is that I read not so long ago. These are emotions and themes that make up all of us, it’s what we all have in common and should be able to relate to regardless of where on the shelf it’s found.
Every book and story, just as every marriage and relationship, is different. But each is filled to capacity with great characters, plot twists, drama and emotions.
I also highly recommend Andrew Sean Greer’s THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI (Picador, 2004).