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Andrew Sean Greer Chronicles a 'Marriage'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

"We think we know the ones we love."

That's how Andrew Sean Greer begins his new book, The Story of a Marriage. Set in the 1950s, the novel is molded by the social events of the times, including the aftermath of World War II, racial desegregation, and the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. But Greer understands that the stories of marriages are primarily shaped not by their eras, but by their idiosyncratic and flawed human characters.

This theme is not new for Greer. His breakthrough novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, is a heartbreaking love story told through the eyes of a man who appears to age backwards.

It would be a mistake to read Greer's romanticism as sentimental. The Story of A Marriage is shot through with deception — self-deception, grand deception and small, defensive falsehoods — as well as pragmatism and compromise.

In the novel, a young housewife named Pearlie Cook lives in a not-quite-poor, mist-shrouded San Francisco neighborhood with a handsome man whose heart, she's warned by his twin aunts, is somehow "crooked." Pearlie understands that diagnosis as a literal truth, and she labors to accommodate her husband's enfeebled heart by cutting upsetting articles from the newspaper and by buying a breed of dog that doesn't bark. Even their polio-afflicted baby is a blessing — he is a quiet child. But the arrival of a mysterious stranger with confusing ties to her husband throws the world she's built terribly askew.

The Story of A Marriage has been described as "mesmerizing," "wondrous" and "lyrical"; most reviewers hesitate to describe the plot for fear of spoiling its tightly constructed twists. But they seem to agree that Greer's literary skills are compelling just on their own.

This reading of The Story of a Marriage took place in June 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.