In his fourth novel, The Story of a Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer ponders the complications of gay love in Eisenhower’s America. Of course, Todd Haynes got there before him, with Far From Heaven, his debunking exercise in Sirk-ian soap opera. Like Haynes, Greer lavishes much attention on the quaint surface details of middle-class ’50s life. But this book really ramps up the repression.
Holland Cook is a young black man hiding out in a Kentucky farmhouse in an attempt to avoid military service in World War II. Pearl is Holland’s home-school tutor and platonic friend. Complications immediately ensue — the war, an injury, then marriage to Pearl. Soon, a stranger enters the picture: girdle magnate Buzz Drumer, an old war buddy of Holland’s, who turns out to be more than a friend. Drumer makes a proposition to Pearl: He will trade his considerable fortune in exchange for the love of his life, who happens to be Holland.
Greer wants his novel to be an elegy for those who furiously paddled against the current of the times and earned their happiness the hard way. (The plight of Ethel Rosenberg, an innocent woman murdered for her spousal loyalty, uneasily thrums under the narrative.) Mercifully, the tone of the novel isn’t as ugly as its subject matter. As a prose stylist, Greer is capable of soaring lyricism; the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, where Holland and Pearl reside, with its ever-present blanket of fog, is a living thing here.
Greer treads a thin line between social realism and sentimental melodrama, but too often, he slips into the mawkish and silly. And his metaphors are really hard to stomach — the most risible being Holland’s “transposed heart.” One wishes Greer had stuck to a flintier line instead of basking his story in so much Technicolor tawdriness. The Story of a Marriage is too contrived to carry the kind of emotional weight Greer hangs on it.
THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE | BY ANDREW SEAN GREER | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 208 pages | $22 hardcover