THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE
by Andrew Sean Greer, 2008
The Story of a Marriage was the BOLLI Book Group selection for April. We had a spirited discussion that covered a lot of ground, as does this short, absorbing novel.
The Story of a Marriage is an affecting novel that is so good on so many levels that Andrew Sean Greer — author of the wonderful The Confessions of Max Tivoli — can be forgiven some quibbles. What he gets right: 1) the evocation of the fog-bound Sunset District in San Francisco in 1953 as the young families of war veterans are putting down roots in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood; 2) the way the fear and repression of the times — war, McCarthyism, sex, race — are reflected in peoples’ lives and especially in their marriages, the suffocating submersion of everything that isn’t “mild and good”; 3) the way “we think we know the ones we love” but one day find ourselves sleeping next to a stranger; 4) the beautiful sentences and turns of phrase.
The quibbles: Neither the plot nor the protagonist’s voice are fully plausible; the “delayed reveal” of important plot points feels manipulative; and there’s some overwriting going on.
This is nothing more or less than the story of a marriage — one marriage, of a young couple who had been teen-age sweethearts in rural Kentucky and stumble upon each other on a beach in San Francisco, having each landed there after the war. It’s a well-worn dictum that there are only two plots in fiction: someone goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. This novel is a quintessential example of the latter as a handsome, blond stranger knocks on Pearlie Cook’s door, upends everything she thought she knew about her husband and their marriage, and sets the story in motion.
There is not much more that can be said without giving away too much. Whether you find them annoying or pleasurable, unexpected twists and secrets are at the heart of this short novel and you can’t help but be borne along on the beautiful language and by wanting to know what happens. An extremely satisfying read.
THE NORTH WATER
by Ian McGuire, 2016
I can breathe now. Clean, warm, fresh air wafting in the window. There’s not much breathing to be done while reading The North Water – one of The New York Times ten best books of 2016 – both because of nonstop action and because of the overwhelmingly fetid atmosphere that pervades this brutal and brilliant novel. Seafaring saga, wilderness survival adventure, suspense story, morality tale, and more blood and guts (literally) than you can imagine in under 300 pages.
As a 19th-century whaling ship heads north to Greenland for reasons not limited to whaling, mortal danger — and not just from the elements — is the constant companion of the miscreants and misfits passing for a crew. The brutality in the novel is shocking and relentless but never gratuitous. And unlike in most historical fiction, there’s no scene-setting distraction, no digressions to describe, say, the state of the whaling industry or the ways of the Esquimaux. The only descriptive detail is the minimum needed to advance the story and our understanding of the characters. Thus the lack of a respite in which to breathe as the story careens forward.
This is not a novel for the faint of heart or, trust me, the queasy of stomach. But for pure story-telling power, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.