On story and setting

marriage1In the best novels (or those I like anyway), setting is inextricably linked to story. Think John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, and, more recently Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage. Greer’s second novel is set in post-WWII mid-1950’s, predominantly in the Sunset district of San Francisco. This is the era of glass bottles of milk delivered fresh to your doorstep, air raids, and the Rosenberg trials.

Greer tells an eerily suspenseful story of an American couple and their son on a precipice of change, like the city and society in which they live. He writes:

“If you clenched your right hand in a fist, that would be my San Francisco, knocking on the Golden Gate. Your little finger would be sunny downtown on the bay, your thumb would be our Ocean Beach out on the Pacific. They called it the Sunset.”

I know the Sunset district intimately. Or I did back in the 80’s when I dated a guy who lived on 32nd Avenue at Taraval. I’d get off work at my cocktail waitressing job along the Embarcadero, jump on the L Muni streetcar and ride it out to the cold, salt-kissed avenues to spend the night with him.

The boyfriend is long-gone but the neighborhood remains: The relentless fog, an intermittent sun sometimes strong enough to break through and cast its lonely light on the terracecotta rooftops and stucco houses of every color of the rainbow. Eternal, this landscape.

With a major exception–Playland is gone (it closed in 1972). Greer’s characters frequent the amusement park and reading his book, I recalled the giant wood slide, and my five-year-old hands gripping either side of the tiny slice of mat; the waves off Ocean Beach and my own heart beat audible under the cheerful song of the carousel pipe organ.

The paperback edition of The Story of a Marriage is now available.

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