Many book lovers will have read San Francisco-based writer Andrew Sean Greer’s novels. His stories provide a sense of place together with meditations on the passing of time and the nature of love. If you read Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Less,” consider his 2008 novel “The Story of a Marriage.” I liked it even more than “Less.” Though not as well known, it skillfully combines complex characters, a somber tone and a surprising plot as Greer unravels the complex dynamics of one marriage.
In 1943, Pearlie Ash and Holland Cook, both African-American teenagers, fall in love in their small Kentucky town. When Holland is drafted, Pearlie helps Holland’s mother hide him from the local draft board. Pearlie brings books, stories and especially hope.
But Holland is soon discovered and sent to war. The two women are derided as traitors. During the war, Holland’s plane is shot down and he is rescued from the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, Pearlie seizes an opportunity to leave Kentucky for work in San Francisco.
After World War II, Pearlie and Holland encounter one another by chance along Ocean Beach. They resume their courtship and one day Holland whispers to Pearlie, “I need you to marry me,” Pearlie says, “He told me I didn’t really know his life. Yet, I married him. He was too beautiful a man to lose and I loved him.”
Four years into Pearlie and Holland’s marriage, a white man named Buzz Drumer appears at their home. Buzz tells Pearlie that he and Holland had been roommates at a military hospital while recovering from their war traumas. He also drops a bombshell: Holland and Buzz had been “together” for two years before Pearlie reappeared in Holland’s life.
Pearlie is stunned: “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.”
Pearlie and Holland never really talk about what happened during or after the war. Holland compartmentalizes his feelings. He keeps his secrets and Pearlie harbors secrets too. Pearlie and Holland do love one another and their son Sonny. They enjoy the life they have created in their little house in San Francisco’s Sunset district.
But because they don’t share their deepest feelings with one another, confusion reigns. Pearlie assumes Holland might want to leave her. Holland assumes Pearlie is willing to start a new life when Buzz offers her money to leave. Both scenarios are possible. So when Buzz arrives to pull Holland away, Pearlie and Holland must confront what each really wants.
All three characters seek tranquility and connection after the chaos of war.
Pearlie feels protective and passionate toward Holland. Holland is desperate for safety and stability. And Buzz is sentimental and sure of his love for Holland.
An older and wiser Pearlie Cook narrates the novel in a reflective voice looking back at her life’s twists and turns. She ruminates on the intricacies of her marriage and the choices that she and Holland made in the fateful months after Buzz knocks on her door.
“How could I possibly explain my marriage?” she asks. “Anyone watching a ship from land is no judge of its seaworthiness, for the vital part is underwater. It can’t be seen.”
With convincing dialogue and keen psychological portraits, Greer’s lyrical writing builds tension as loyalties shift and the book crescendos toward its climax.
Greer’s story is one of love and loss. It is full of empathy for the human condition and the multiple layers that exist within every person. We never understand another person completely. But due to Greer’s superb writing, by the end, we know more about what lies in these characters’ hearts.
Greer is slated to appear with Amanda Stern, who discusses her memoir “Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life,” at 6 p.m. Monday July 23 at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, S.F.
Katherine Read reviews books at http://readsreading.blogspot.com.