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The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer - 12 February 2010

We may have set a record for attendance.  Fifteen of us met at Le Bookshop on February 12th to discuss The Story of A Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer.  Denise had proposed the book and said she first read it in French (translation) and wanted to see if it is as beautifully written in the original English.  She affirmed that it is.  She told us that the author was born in 1970, the son of two scientists.  He has an identical twin brother (perhaps he's a scientist?).  He was artistic, but unsuccessful as a writer at first.  (Someone said that perhaps he was also a scientist.)  His first novel was published in 2001.  His second novel was published in 2004 and got good reviews.  The Story of a Marriage, his third novel, was published in 2008 (in the U.K.).  It is set in San Francisco, where the author now lives.  Denise brought a map of San Francisco to point out the "touristy" part on the Bay, and the Sunset area, which was constructed after World War II and is a network of small, mainly two-storey houses, stretching down toward the sea.  It was tract housing meant for returning veterans.  The Sunset has a microclimate; it is cold, even in summer, and frequently fog-bound. The mountains to the west keep the fog from dispersing.  The Fillmore district, where the aunts of the story lived, used to be a Japanese area until the Japanese were interned and their housing became "available."  It was then mostly filled by "coloreds."

 

SueR said that it's interesting that someone so young could write in such detail about the 1950's.  The readers' notes suggested that the post-war period in the 1950's was a "time of innocence, despite the polio epidemic, the Korean War, the Red Scare."  Denise commented that you knew where your place was in society.  We wondered how many people might refuse to read the book because of the title.  Karen said her husband asked, "WHAT are you reading?"  We tried to imagine a "better" title (The Trio, Two Lives [or Two Lies], The Unexpected Visitor at the Door, How People Don't Communicate in a Marriage, A Case Study in Lack of Communication), but found no suitable replacement.  Mireille wondered if the "story" of Pearlie and Holland's marriage is only in Pearlie's head, or is it real life.   KatharineC said she felt the book was "so full of surprises."  She thought that the final surprise would be for Pearlie to have an affair with Buzz and run off with him, and that we would learn that Buzz had never really had an affair with Holland.

 

Denise asked what we felt was the main theme of the book.  Chris said, "Ignore something long enough and it will go away."  Mireille said, "not wanting to know more."  Louise said, "dishonesty, hypocrisy."  Anne said, "Living a lie was a way of life in the '50's and '60's."  Mariannick said the most important part of the novel for her was the mention of political events of the times, such as the Ethel Rosenberg affair.  Karen called our attention to The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, and the film Angels in America, in which Meryl Streep plays Ethel Rosenberg.  Chris asked if it is illegal to be homosexual in the US.  Denise replied that the laws vary from State to State, but sodomy was illegal.  (ed.- I just pulled the following from the internet to set us "straight," so to speak/write:  Sodomy laws in the United States were largely a matter of state rather than federal jurisdiction, except for laws governing the U.S. Armed Forces.  By 2002, 36 states had repealed all sodomy laws or had them overturned by court rulings. The remaining sodomy laws were invalidated by the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas.) While we were drifting on the subject of laws and courts, Mariannick mentioned a woman who was imprisoned for bouncing checks, was accused of murder, and was executed.  Maggie said that it was not uncommon in the '50's and '60's for a gay man in the U.S. to marry and sire a child to show that he conformed to the "norm."  (e.g. rumors about an actor called Fairy rather than Cary, and Anne added a more recent example on this side of the Atlantic)  Denise said that the main theme in the book is war.  It is a war story.  "It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass."  Denise wondered if the starvation experiments were real.  How far can you go?  How close to starvation?  Where is the breaking point?  Someone mentioned eugenics and lobotomies before World War II in the U.S., Sweden and Australia.  (ed - compare criticism by G.K. Chesterton) and we noted that Rosemary Kennedy underwent a lobotomy (in 1941).  Jan mentioned the role of Liz Taylor as a woman about to be lobotomized in the 1959 film Suddenly Last Summer.  (ed.-The Hollywood Production Code forced the filmmakers to cut out the explicit references to homosexuality.) She also mentioned Revolutionary Road (1955 novel, 2008 film), and Agnes mentioned the book Shutter Island, which has also been made into a flim.

 

 
We shared a series of quotes from the book that impressed us with their lyrical style:  "I wore my nerves outside my skin like lace;"  "a dirt road, which parted the gold grass like a comb through hair;" "It was akin to having the moon, which has lit every night of your young life, revolved in the sky and smile down on you;" "Does love always form, like a pearl, around these hardened bits of life?"  Jan felt the book was a bit too melancholy, and said there are ways to find happiness.  Mireille said that finding happiness means accepting hardships.  We once again stressed the lack of communication, and talked about the characters.  Buzz has two strikes against him.  He is a homosexual, and he is a conscientious objector.  Denise said that Buzz is a manipulator.  Maggie said that Holland wants to please everyone.  A man wants to love him; that's ok.  A woman wants to love him; that's ok too.  KatharineC felt that Holland wanted the security of the components of a family - a housewife more than a wife, plus a son and a dog.  Someone asked if Holland had an affair with Annabel, his white employer's daughter, or just drove her to class on Saturdays.  (The consensus was that they did not have an affair.)  KatharineC asked if anyone had ever drunk a soda-jerk's 5-cent Suicide.  She said it sounds foul, and must look foul.  ("A fluted glass under the fountain, the release of carbonated Coca-Cola, and then, going down the row, a trickle of poison from every flavor - chocolate, cherry, vanilla - until you had an ink black beverage set before you, ruffled with foam and smelling like a potion.")  We also wondered about Buzz's "bumblebee accent," which is not explained by the simple fact that he is a Virginia boy.  Chris felt the story was very real; Pearlie just accepted and lived her life.  Maggie noted that Pearlie always said "my son," and never "our son" when referring to Sonny.  We felt that the newspapers with articles clipped out by Pearlie so that Holland wouldn't see them did not ring true, and wondered why he didn't ask where the rest of the newspaper was.  Louise said that not only women were not allowed choices, but blacks were not allowed choices.  She was upset about the mystery of color, and felt that the author manipulates the reader.  There is a hint of Pearlie's color on page 11, but it is not confirmed until page 57.  KatharineC felt the author had set out to shock, and read from her notes of interviews (Rumpus and the Guardian newspaper).  She said that the author was not pretending to "cover the African-American experience" nor to write Pearlie "as a representative African-American woman," which would be "insulting."  He admits to being presumptuous, but "wanted to have an imaginative empathy with her."  Katharine also said she felt that sometimes the author was over-writing, with the specific exception of the lines, "I did not know you to fight a white man.  I was born without that muscle."
 
We had questions. Denise remarked that we never know what Holland does for a living.  KatharineC replied that he travels a lot.  Does he have a secret life?  Assignations?  Chris asked if anyone wanted to know anything more about Buzz, to which Mireille replied that Buzz is a literary device, and Holland is the one to explore.  Denise questioned the final scene.  Why didn't Pearlie meet with Buzz?  Mireille replied, "Enough lies!"  Jan said that a lot of people would probably have liked to know how Buzz had turned out, but perhaps for Pearlie it was just too painful.  KatharineC said perhaps it was pride.  Buzz had paid her a lot of compliments in her younger days, but now she was just an old woman.  Mireille said maybe we'll just have to wait for a sequel.  Jan wondered whether the same book with a different name would appeal to men.  It is a psychological book, about feelings.  KatharineC said that it is based on a true story about the author's grandmother, but that she (ed. - the grandmother, sillies!) regretted she hadn't slept with more men.  Agnes said that Pearlie wanted marriage, and its situation, more than love, either physical or emotional.  Mireille said that love should be reciprocal.  Agnes continued that Pearlie is mother to both a son and a husband.  KatharineC felt that the denunciation of the soda jerk was out of character, and wondered what prompted Pearlie to finally post the letter.  The gun also worried us.  Who was going to do what, and to whom?

 

KatharineC referred to her notes and said that John Updike had compared Andrew Sean Greer to Proust and Nabokov for his "perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment," but no one else noticed disenchantment.  Melancholy, perhaps.  The book was set between World War II and the 60's, when things actually did change.  "This situation will not hold."  There were fears of race and sex.  Eisenhower advocated burning books by Karl Marx.  Louise mentioned Philip Roth's book The Plot Against America, which imagines Germany winning the war and Lindberg as president.  Mireille felt that the author was in a hurry to finish writing the book, and left some points dangling.  Sonny has a half-Chinese child that he doesn't know.  KatharineC called the author a bumptious American, and said he was a commencement speaker at his own graduation from Brown University.

 

Denise ended the meeting by recommending two books in French:  La TĂȘte en Friche, by Marie-Sabine Roger, and La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, by Philippe Claudel.

 

I've saved the best for last.  I don't remember anyone mentioning it during the discussion, but from KRC's printed notes, I see that the author is gay.