Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage

This story is set in 1953. The heroine and her husband live in new housing built for returning soldiers, close to Ocean Beach, in the only district of San Francisco then expected to survive a direct nuclear hit on downtown. Greer deliberately reconstructs a San Francisco that’s unfamiliar, pre-gay-pride and pre-counterculture, the locals traumatized and uncommunicative. To be a conscientious objector is shameful. This place gives us a shock of non-recognition, consistent with the book’s insistence on the unknowability of those we love.

The Story of a Marriage has a plot that springs a big surprise about every forty pages, and shares with Ian McEwan’s Atonement a vision of the past as a nest of betrayals. There’s also an aftertaste of film noir — all surfaces are illusory, and the characters’ underlying desires are so intense, one can credit the elaborate indirectness of the schemes they hatch to pursue them. I hereby nominate Orson Welles to direct the movie version, while simultaneously playing the role of Buzz, who according to taste can be seen either as the villain or as the hero of the piece.

For Greer, the figure most emblematic of 1953 is Ethel Rosenberg, whose crime was not to suspect the treachery of the one she loved. It’s a crime of which most of the book’s characters are guilty. Pearlie, our heroine, learns that “nobody is strong or wise or good or faithful, not really. It turns out everyone is faking it as best they can.”

John Updike was perhaps in a territorial mood when he concluded his review of this book dismissively — for a novelist under forty to evoke a suburban Cold War marriage must have seemed a form of trespassing. Tomorrow I plan to blog in defense of historical fiction generally, but for now I will just note that Greer has succeeded, for me anyway, in imaginatively colonizing the Outer Sunset. That part of San Francisco used to feel somehow ahistorical to me, with its street names like Taraval, seemingly more appropriate to a fantasy kingdom.

But henceforth, on that side of town it will be forever 1953.
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