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Andrew Sean Greer's 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 set in the post-World War II era, when many 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 inadvertently played a role in getting him drafted. The war experience has shaken Holland to the core, giving him what Pearlie calls "a transposed heart."

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

Buzz and Holland were lovers, and Buzz takes Pearlie through the myriad moments of their togetherness during a time when male bonding could 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 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 smoothly flowing words lull the reader. His description of an out-of-place wife, trying to build a home for her son and husband, is visceral.

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 a crescendo, ideally involving some action. Besides, the denouement, like much of what comes before it, is contrived.

Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi.

The Story of a Marriage

By Andrew Sean Greer

Picador USA, 208 pages, $22

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

By George Johnson

Knopf, 208 pages, $22

Andrew Sean Greer's second novel is so passive, it's aggressive 04/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 11:53am]

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