World War II shapes and complicates a young married couple’s shared and separate lives in this latest from California author Greer (The Confessions of Max Tivoli, 2004, etc.).
What narrator Pearlie Cook says of her introverted spouse Holland (“We think we know the ones we love.”) applies also to herself, in one of several surprise twists taken by Greer’s slowly unfolding plot. We learn early on that she met shy, handsome neighbor Holland Cook in grade school in their native Kentucky. After Holland enlisted and went overseas, Pearlie moved to California, where she volunteered for a military organization, then married the wounded returning soldier (further burdened by congenital illness), devoted herself to creating a peaceful, loving environment and bore him a son (who would be stricken with poliomyelitis). Her family’s story becomes entangled with that of “Buzz” Drumer, Holland’s hospital roommate, whose disclosures overturn everything Pearlie thought she knew, and confirm her determination to protect her husband and son—though, she’ll eventually acknowledge, she has managed instead “to step on and alter a war, and a marriage, and the course of several lives.” Greer creates numerous moving moments, but they’re often obscured by emotionally charged figurative language and imperfectly dramatized expressions of enlightened social and political attitudes. (If only George Orwell had edited this book…) Little more can be said without revealing the novel’s crucial surprises—except that the author simply tries too hard, and the reader balks at its surplus of sentimentality.
Greer’s best feature as a novelist is his willingness to keep trying new things. Let’s hope his next book avoids the worst excesses of this one.