It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs." So begins Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, set in 1953 at the height of McCarthyite anti-communism. This is also the year in which cracks begin to appear in the marriage at the centre of Andrew Sean Greer's accomplished and humane domestic drama. An old pal of Pearlie Cook's husband unexpectedly turns up, announcing: "'Hello, ma'am, I hope you can help me.' With those ordinary words, everything would change."
The author's signposting is not only heavy-handed but typical. The novel's symbolism is likewise driven home. Pearlie and husband Holland live in the "Outside Lands", Sunset, San Francisco – away from Downtown, looking out to sea. Where Plath propels her story into life with one devastating sentence, Greer feels the need to insist on portentous meaning. War is in the air. America is finding its feet as a superpower, but Korea and tensions at home make these difficult times: "This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass."
As a young man, Holland was hidden away by his mother, who didn't want to see him killed in someone else's war. He almost beat the draft, but was taken ill. Pearlie, forced to call a doctor, inadvertently gave Holland away. He was sent to war, saw his ship blown up, and was subsequently hospitalised.
Convalescing, he met Buzz, a conscientious objector, who had had his own difficult battles to face. The past intertwines with the moving tale of Pearlie's love for her tall and dark husband who had a "kind of effortless beauty that cannot be marred". Beauty is something of a theme. Holland is beautiful while Buzz has "perfectly sapphirine eyes". Buzz says that he always "knew Holland would marry a beautiful girl". Their son "was a beauty" too. A perfectly beautiful extended family, then, with ugly, real life intruding on them. This is cliché.
Sometimes, Greer's writing is simple and affecting. Worried that she may lose Holland, Pearlie says, "I wouldn't just be alone in the present; I would be alone in my past as well, in my memories." Often, however, Greer coins analogies that look flashy yet don't scan. Metaphors need to chime with what Pearlie would know and say. During an air raid drill, the couple have to hide in their basement: "Down we went into the darkness; it was the opposite of Orpheus." A literary allusion like this is the opposite of what Pearlie would have thought. It may be beautiful writing, but it papers over the cracks of her life.Reuse content