There's a line in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, a book I read about 10 times when I was 19 and 20, that's been stuck in my head ever since. He writes that in books by Dostoyevsky, there were things "so true they changed you as you read them." For a long time that phrase became my gold standard for judging novels.
Hemingway is dangerous for young idealists for all sorts of reasons, but his emphasis on literary Truth was particularly disastrous for me. The search for "one true sentence" became my blind spot; for a good turn of phrase, I was willing to forgive major plot holes and incredible character flaws. I overlooked the fact that things may be True, but that doesn't automatically make the novel Good. A perfect example of this is The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer, a book sprinkled with profound prose that ultimately rings false.
When the novel is good, it is very good. Greer is a dynamite writer and his sentences crackle with gorgeous insights on love:
"Perhaps love is a minor madness. And as with madness, it is unendurable alone. The one person who can relieve us is of course the sole person we cannot go to: the one we love. So instead we seek out allies... fellow patients who, if they can't touch the edge of our particular sorrow, have felt something that cuts nearly as deep."
Unfortunately, the book never lives up to the potential of its few True sentences. Greer never quite gets a handle on his narrator—Pearlie Cook, a young housewife in 1950s San Francisco who discovers a terrible secret about her husband—suggesting that the experience of love is universal but the experience of womanhood is not. He spends much time harping on Pearlie's womanhood and role as a wife, weaving in too many phrases like "I memorized each corner of your room. Of course I did; I was a girl in love," as if he's reminding himself that he's writing from a female POV. These little reminders are distracting dilutions of Pearlie's voice. Try to find a paragraph where Hemingway wrote, "I was a man."
It's a shame that Greer gets sidetracked, because marriage is a rich subject and he comes close to revealing something profound. But Truth appears here in brilliant flashes and is gone a second later.
Andrew Sean Greer reads Tues May 20, University Book Store, 7 pm, free.