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05.21.08

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Phaedra

The Story of a Marriage

By Karen Laws


In his new novel, Andrew Sean Greer sensitively portrays a world under wraps, from the fighter jets that WAVES wrap in brown paper for shipment to Korea to the vine-covered house in San Francisco where Pearlie Cook lives with husband, Holland, and their young son. As Pearlie tells the reader, "We think we know the ones we love," but Holland has a secret past. One Saturday in 1953, sapphirine-eyed Buzz Drumer appears on the doorstep with presents (gift-wrapped, of course) for his former lover and his wife; and Pearlie's life is never the same. No one who has read the marvelous Confessions of Max Tivoli can doubt Greer's prowess as a storyteller, but here he waits too long to provide the reader with information vital to our understanding of the characters. Some of the novel's most compelling passages—how the U.S. government conducted starvation tests on conscientious objectors during World War II, or the final hours of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—refer to the Cooks' story only tangentially. Pearlie's narrative is about as exciting as pressed flowers, and when she withholds a truth about herself, we can find no stronger motive than an authorial wish to introduce an aha! moment into the deep hush of the tale. What we need, but never quite get, is a sense of who the Cooks are and what they want. In a telling early scene, Pearlie has tea and popovers with her then-fiance's aunts. The aunts warn her not to marry Holland because he has "a crooked heart." Innocent Pearlie responds by marrying him anyway and customizing their home to protect his delicate health. (She even buys a barkless dog.) Readers may come away from this novel feeling they've been treated to a story that is like a popover, all beautiful surface; nothing inside. (By Andrew Sean Greer; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 195 pages; $22 cloth)


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