“Portrait of a Marriage” by Pearl S. Buck

Is it possible to spend fifty years living with one person and keep the feeling that you are in love intact? Is it possible to do so with a person who is the complete opposite of yourself? Pearl S. Buck gives her answers to these questions, and some of these answers will certainly surprise some readers.

Everyone knows the story. A rich man, used to idleness and with every opportunity in the world open for him. And a girl from the countryside, used to hard work, limited by her origins. From the moment they meet, we all know what will happen. Either a man uses the girl dishonestly and hurries back into his glamorous life without a backward glance – if only a brief moment of melancholy sweeps him back in time in his memories from time to time. Or they marry, and the girl moves into the big house and starts playing a role of a rich lady, discarding her roots and never looking back at her humble past.

It’s not what happens in “Portrait of a Marriage”.

Pearl S. Buck will surprise the reader, and pleasantly so, the one who wouldn’t mind the slow pace of the story, and who would wish to invest in two spouses’ inner worlds, in both of which the author dives with thorough knowledge of human nature.

William and Ruth dedicate their lives to each other. Each in their own way, sacrificing things to gain something more significant in return. It’s been an almost hypnotising experience reading through the years and decades they spent together. The choices they make, fates of their children, relationship with their families – nothing seemed cliché or strained.

For some readers, it might feel a little repetitive, but I found the way the author describes Ruth through William’s eyes absolutely mesmerising. In his eyes, her beauty never diminishes despite her age. He is a painter, and maybe that’s what lets him see her differently than a non-creative man would have seen her. But maybe it’s love that has – not clouded! – righted his vision.

I loved that the author doesn’t slip into describing the long marriage of two so different people like an idyll. But through highlighting the problems and disagreements spouses inevitably face living their whole life together, Pearl S. Buck illuminates the worth of the commitment two people enter when they give their wedding vows.

In 1938, Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American woman to have done so. 

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