Monday, August 10, 2009

Reflections: Portrait of a Marriage

The title and the book's cover leave little to the imagination in terms of the theme and the storyline. A wealthy and refined young artist wanders the lands of rustic and rich Philadelphia pastures to find inspiration for his paintings. He does find his inspiration, by mere accident, through a lovely and beautiful farm girl. Inevitably, the two people who couldn't be more different, fall in love. The young artist soon realizes that this angelic farm girl was more than just an inspiration to his art - she seemed to be the nourishment for his happiness, and the soul food for his very spirit. The book unfolds their tale.

Pearl Buck captures the reality of such a relationship, formed out of the communion of two people from entirely different worlds. Most movies and romance tales vehemently portray the power of love to transcend differences in social class, caste, religion and race. While they end with the man and the woman tying the knot, and with a cheery statement on "happily ever after", this book deals with what happens after the successful union. The book openly brings out the conflicts, and the harsh realities of being nurtured differently, and of being painfully aware of the differences in social class, no matter how hard it is tried to be erased. Nurture forms an integral part of a person's identity. Pearl Buck very sensitively brings out the internal conflicts of the couple, each of whom struggle so ardently to fit into the other person's way of life and expectations and find themselves failing, and slipping away to their roots. The tale brings out how they settle into a middle ground and work through the relationship.

The story spans across three generations, highlighting the ups, downs, tragedies and challenges of the marriage and how the couple sustain their commitment to each other. The timeline of the tale spins from the Pre-First World era, and moves into the First and Second World Wars. Pearl Buck subtly brings out the immense impact that the war had on diverse families and countries.

As a family saga of sorts, the tale is not entirely fascinating, or gripping. It plays on like a biographical video of one of our ancestors. But Pearl Buck's writing gives a lot of substance and life to the characters, that they come alive as real personalities we can associate with. She also delicately probes the types of doubts, regrets and compromises that are often taken for granted in a successful relationship. She zooms into the realities of such a seemingly perfect and happy couple, who have their own faults, their own disappointments. I particularly liked how Buck integrated the challenges of having children, watching them grow, and leave the nest - her writing captured the essence of what it means to grow in a relationship and transform into companions. She also brought across the message that, love alone doesn't transcend anything - it is an empty shell and a plant without roots, soon to die. Enduring love is one that is derived out of the realization that each spouse completes the other person - this symbiotic relationship, wherein each one needs to feed from some aspect of the other to be the person they truly are, is the yin-yang of a successful marriage.

Pearl Buck's writing wields an emotional and sensitive tale, without whose expert writing, I'm sure the storyline would have fallen flat and banal, and I wouldn't have appreciated it :)


SecondSight said...

Isn't that true of a lot of great fiction- without the expert writing, most of Shakespeare's stories would probably be like Mills and Boons romances or something.. :)

Btw- that cover picture looks quite odd though, I don't think Ruth is supposed to be quite as seductive as she's trying to be on that ! Off-shoulder blouse and the weird pose and all that.. :)

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Yes, that's very true! This novel could have been easily shelved as M&B romance if the writing didn't capture the depths of their relationship.

I couldn't find the exact cover! There were only two kinds, this one and an even worse one that was so M&b like! I decided this was better :)