Saturday, April 26, 2008

Second novel is so passive, it's aggressive

Andrew Sean Greer's second novel, after the critical and commercial hit "The Confessions of Max Tivoli", is based in the post-World War II era, when a large number of American soldiers returned to make halting lives with their new families.

Pearlie Cook is the wife of one such soldier, the emotionally battered Holland. Pearlie has known Holland since childhood and had inadvertently played a central role in his drafting. The war experience has shaken Holland to the core, and has given him, what Pearlie calls, "a transposed heart".

Squeezed in between caring for a polio-afflicted son and looking after a husband who refuses to share a room with her, Pearlie has us believe she is happy. Until, of course, a stranger, Buzz Drummer, walks up to her one day and reveals something about Holland's war past that makes Pearlie, and the reader, question the already lightweight claims of her happiness.

Buzz and Holland were lovers, and Buzz takes Pearlie through the myriad moments of their togetherness during a time of conflict, when male bonding could easily spill over to romantic interest. Then there is Annabel, the daughter of Holland's employer, with whom, if rumor is to be believed, Holland is having an affair.

With so much open to question, Greer had the perfect script in hand, but his tendency to avoid conflict at all costs, kills the novel. Why is Pearlie so accepting of her husband's transgressions? Why is she so prone to philosophizing her pain? Why, hell why, does she not create a ruckus and pull some answers out of her wayward husband?

Greer has an eye for the apt phrase, and his words lull the reader with their smooth flow. His description of an out-of-place wife, trying hard to build a home for her son and husband, is
visceral—reminiscent of the angst-ridden Laura Brown from "The Hours" (Greer has revealed his fondness for that novel).

But as a novel, "The Story of a Marriage" does not work. For Pearlie's sacrificial self to hold any meaning, the book ought to have built to a crescendo, ideally involving violence. But that does not happen. Besides, the denouement, like much of what comes before it, is contrived.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

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