The Story of a Marriage was so warmly recommended by my godmother that I felt almost honour-bound to put it on my reading list. It is an interesting but difficult book to review, for it keeps eluding me, resisting attempts to pin it down.
Ostensibly, it is a love story – or rather, the story of a love triangle. In the Sunset District of San Francisco, Pearlie Cook leads the quiet and uneventful life of a typical nineteen fifties housewife, caring for her husband and her young son. Pearlie believes she is happy, until the arrival of an old friend of her husband’s rocks the safety of her world. For Charles “Buzz” Drumer once had an affair with Holland Cook, and now he wants him back. And he wants Pearlie to help him. During the following six months, Pearlie struggles to come to terms with Buzz’s revelations and battles with her rival over who has the greater claim on Holland’s affections. With a shock, Pearlie realizes her life is a sham, her marriage an elaborate construction of delusions and lies.
“We think we know the ones we love” Pearlie repeats with increasing bitterness throughout the novel. Significantly, the story is told from a one-sided – lop-sided – point of view. Like Pearlie, the reader is left to play a solitary game of narrative blind-man’s-buff, painstakingly trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together in order to understand. The deep-rooted belief that love and marriage create an unshakeable bond of shared understanding between two people is shattered by Holland’s impenetrable exterior as much as by Pearlie’s discoveries. The painful guesswork Pearlie is reduced to reveals the difficulty, the impossibility even, of knowing another person completely. For all that, Pearlie is not cast as a victim. On the contrary, her mistakes, her assumptions, her wilful blindness to certain tell-tale signs that all was not well in her marriage make her as responsible for the present crisis as her husband’s secretiveness and Buzz’s trouble-making. Over the years, the fiction she has created around her marriage, her own distorting version of the truth, is in itself a form of dishonesty towards her husband. Pearlie’s realization of her culpability makes this as much a novel about self-knowledge as about knowledge of another person.
Indeed, lack of self-knowledge appears to be the core problem of Holland Cook’s life. Pearlie has always believed that her husband has a heart condition, the result of the injuries he suffered during the Second World War, and has used his medical condition to explain and excuse his behaviour. Buzz reveals that, like him, Holland was in fact hospitalized for having a nervous breakdown. Holland has never fully recovered from the trauma of the war and what Pearlie has taken for physical frailty is in fact emotional fragility. Somewhere along the way, amid the violence and bloodshed, Holland Cook lost himself. His relationship with Buzz, his flawed marriage to Pearlie, and his aborted affair with a neighbourhood girl, all bear witness to his deep-seated confusion and to his fumbling quest for a sense of identity. It is very telling that in Pearlie and Buzz’s battle of wills over who is going to get Holland, they never once stop to ask for his opinion, to consult his feelings and wishes. On the pretext of protecting Holland, they strip him of his voice and will. Throughout the novel he remains a central but nebulous figure. We almost never hear him speak and there are no explanations between him and Pearlie. Everything happens underground. Even the final confrontation between Holland and Buzz takes place while Pearlie is asleep and only the sight of her husband’s broken nose the following morning reveals that something untoward occurred. Typically, no mention will ever be made of the incident.
In many ways, the America of the fifties reflects Holland’s identity crisis. Still haunted by the spectre of the Second World War, it is now in the grip of the Korean War. At the same time, the McCarthy witch hunt is in full swing: in the Sunset District, curtains twitch as people spy on their neighbours, and the air is thick with whispered denunciations. The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg unfolds parallel to the domestic war being waged in the Cook household, prompting a comparison between the two. The private issue of marital loyalty becomes a public concern from the moment it collides with the notion – sacred, in this time of national threat and intense patriotism – of loyalty to one’s country. Ethel Rosenberg chooses her spouse over her country, remaining loyal to him even in the face of death. Holland, for his part, has proven himself false to both, having refused to fight in the previous war until literally dragged out and forced to. But what incentive could there be for him to lay down his life fighting for America? He can feel no sense of duty because he feels no sense of belonging.
Insidiously, the novel turns from the story of a love triangle into a story about exclusion: unexpectedly, at the end of Part I, the novel reveals to us that Pearlie and Holland Cook are “coloured”, a detail which goes a long way to explaining Pearlie’s initial diffidence when wealthy, white, Buzz Drumer appears on her doorstep. Not for nothing is Pearlie’s closest friend the only Jewish woman in the neighbourhood: part of their bond is their shared knowledge that they are both outcasts. In the same way, Buzz is isolated both by his homosexuality and by his having been a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Nineteen fifties America turns its back on cowards, Negroes, and perverts with the same implacable zeal as it displays in hounding out Communist traitors. From this point of view, the book can be read as a bitter indictment of the American Dream and its professed values of equality and integration.
The Story of a Marriage is complex, subtle, and challenging, its moral landscape as shifting and ambiguous as the pervasive, oppressive, fog that creeps over the bay and disguises the city’s familiar landmarks. Thought-provoking to the very last, it is a truly remarkable work.
© Florence Berlioz 2012
What a fantastic review, Florence. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this book before but it sounds like it deals with some absolutely fascinating issues. I was particularly struck by your description of how Pearlie and Buzz treat Holland: On the pretext of protecting Holland, they strip him of his voice and will. I am always intrigued by how often books dealing with love triangles both consciously and unconsciously ignore the will of the man or woman at the center of the conflict.
Thank you, Claire! I hadn’t ever heard of it before either, in spite of its having been extremely well received by critics when it was published. It really is a fascinating book: you could go on peeling off layers ad infinitum and still have something to think about!
What a powerful review of a very explosive novel! The title didn’t appeal to me when I first saw your review, but you demonstrated that this book holds so much more than the sad tale of a typically dysfunctional marriage. I really do like novels where the time period is reflected in the human relationships. Now I am very curious to know how the story ends – I’m thinking Holland stays with Pearlie? – I guess I will have to read it to find out for sure!
I won’t tell you: you’ll have to read it 🙂 The ending is quite unexpected – but then again, this is a book which is unexpected from start to finish!