Pearlie and Holland are childhood sweethearts from Kentucky who have found each other again after being separated when Holland went off to war. Holland is a troubled man when he returns and though his elderly spinster aunts try to warn Pearlie that she should not marry Holland on account of his being “ill”, they only drop cryptic hints as to what that illness might be. Pearlie does what any young woman in love would do- she ignores them, nurses and watches carefully over Holland’s health, and then marries him anyway.
Pearlie and Holland start making a life for themselves when they move to the community of Sunset at the furthest edge of San Francisco. Curiously, and for reasons not immediately clear, they remain outsiders in their neighborhood; but even still, they have a child together and plan on raising him where they have settled. They do well for a time, but the precarious balance of their lives is upset when Holland’s past in the form of Charles Drumer comes knocking at their door, relentlessly drawing Pearlie into the midst of an intrigue where she is hopelessly out of her depth.
I’ve read The Confessions of Max Tivoli by the same author, Andrew Sean Greer, and while I was taken with the premise he wanted to explore (a man who aged and lived backwards), I was very disappointed with the execution of the novel. It was beautifully written but I didn’t feel that the story addressed some of the obvious questions raised in the story. I picked up The Story of A Marriage wanting to see what else this talented writer had to offer. This time I wasn’t disappointed.
I was interested right away in Pearlie- the life that she was leading, her odd jobs, personality traits, peculiar background- and that which made her prone to the choices she made. Though her life is framed by the needs of others and by the standards of her time, this story is thoroughly hers, and her husband Holland remains a shadowy figure seen and known only through Pearlie’s hazy reflections, which she uses to protectively distance herself from painful experiences in her past. I always wondered what was going on with her and whether I could trust her- whether I could truly rely on her for an accurate portrayal of events.
The truth is slow to reveal itself, filtered as it is through Pearlie’s uncertain psyche, but I was often stunned by the nuggets of additional information that triumphantly reveal themselves over the course of this strange narrative. Holland doesn’t remember Pearlie when they first rediscover each other in California, and I often caught myself wondering what would prompt a woman to give herself so eagerly to a first love who didn’t even remember her. I was intrigued by the way the story unfolded and each piece of the puzzle skillfully raised more questions than the last.
Charles Drummer easily becomes a fixture in the Cook household and he exerts a powerful influence on the vulnerable Pearlie, who lacks the self-esteem and confidence to challenge the sacrifice that Drumer requires her to make. There are hints from the first pages that Pearlie’s young marriage has taken turns that are unexpected and unwelcome by the new wife. I was eager to see it unfold and know what had brought them to such an unsatisfactory conclusion. The carefully exposed journey to the end result was a fraught and complicated stew of themes exploring guilt, responsibility, male authority and privilege and a few surprises that it would spoil the book to name. It was also beautifully written and gorgeous in both language and imagery.
This video is a bit spoilery for the novel, but it’s so interesting! Definitely check it out if you’ve read this book or have no intention of reading this book (lol).