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September 18, 2023

The Marriage Artist: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer.

When he thought of Wind, when he thought of Aleksandra, when he thought of his father -- when Daniel thought of anyone he had known who was now dead -- what survived of them was not only love. What survived also were the echoes of all the resistance they had thrown up to life (and therefore to death). Sure the love, but also the rage, the refusal, the running, the shouting, the punching, the probing, the flailing, the crying, the sprint of sex, the furious hunger to be. When Aleksandra and Wind had hit the pavement, it was the releasing of resistance. - from The Marriage Artist, page 148-9

Daniel Lichtmann is a New York art critic married to a beautiful Russian immigrant and photographer named Aleksandra. When Aleksandra plunges to her death from a rooftop, she does not go alone. The body of Benjamin Wind, an artist who has taken the world by storm and received accolades from Daniel, is found next to her. Their deaths are sudden and unexplainable. Although it seems apparent that the two committed suicide in some lover's pact, Daniel cannot accept his wife's death at face value.

Josef Pick is only ten years old and living in pre-WWII Austria, the son of Jewish parents who deny their faith, when he discovers a hidden talent: the ability to draw ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts which are an integral part of the Jewish faith). Josef's contracts are so astonishingly beautiful and intricate that they belie his lack of artistic training. His gift draws him to his maternal grandfather, a Rabbi living in the Jewish section of Vienna. Josef will come to manhood as Hitler's troops invade the city -- forced to reconcile his confused view of marriage, his faith and belief in God, and what it means to love another.

These two characters -- Daniel and Josef -- are separated by half a century, but are astonishingly connected. As Daniel searches for truth in the death of his wife, he will discover the answers hidden in history, religious belief, and the elusive threads of family.

Andrew Winer has written a multi-layered, brilliant novel about identity, marriage, love, and our connections to each other through our shared histories. The book is narrated through the parallel stories of Daniel and Josef, moving back and forth from the present to the past. Winer's characters are richly developed -- real, flawed, complex, and wholly believable. The result is a stunning and haunting novel which pulls the reader through its pages and doesn't let her go until the emotional ending.

Winer weaves the historical elements seamlessly through the novel, setting the reader down in Vienna during the terror of Nazi invasion. But Winer does more than just give us history ... he uses history to show us the importance of identity ( a strong theme in the novel). When Hitler's troops rounded up Jewish people, forced them into cattle cars and murdered them in mass numbers, he essentially stole the identities of individuals. By shaving their captives' heads, the Nazis neutralized their gender. They tore families apart, disconnecting individuals from their shared pasts. They used mass graves to dispose of remains. They stole people's futures. They even negated their names by labeling them with the letter "J."

The officer examines her child's documents first, meticulously transcribing HERMAN JOHANNES PICK in his notebook, along with the rest of the two-year-old's particulars. As she watches the officer finish with a practiced flourish by setting down in bold ink the letter "J" beside her son's information (just like he did for the other Jews registered by his hand on the same page), she is stirred by everything that is annihilating about identification ... the reek of human inventory, the chilling exactitude of a street address, the futurelessness of any single person's name. - from The Marriage Artist, page 226 -

But it is perhaps the examination of life's meaning intertwined with the connections we have with others which elevates this novel to something extraordinary. The Marriage Artist makes salient and honest observations of marriage, love, death, and the binds that connect families from generation to generation.

Perhaps the boy was seeking instructions of a much weightier kind, answers to questions for which there are no easy answers: What does one do with a life? Which path should one take? How might one live each moment? What will happen to us? - from The Marriage Artist, page 53 -

And so it is, that Josef experiences his first conscious recognition of the deep, the thorny, the bizarre pull between family members that most people call love but, more often than they would care to admit, resembles tolerance. - from The Marriage Artist, page 101 -

Aleksandra may have married him, but she had died with Benjamin Wind. Could he accept that death was the stronger bond, or worse, that his marriage had not been what he had believed it to be -- not necessarily a lie, but something narrower than love? - from The Marriage Artist, page 14 -

As Daniel struggles to reconcile the affair between his wife and Benjamin -- that then led to their demise -- he begins to question why people are drawn together. What are we looking for when we choose another person with whom to share our life? Are we perhaps, only looking for ourselves reflected through another person's eyes?

[...] if there was any truth to the notion that when we love we are not really looking to see something new, but rather our own ideas embodied in the other person -- qualities that awaken echoes already resounding in us. - from The Marriage Artist, page 256 -

Winer was formerly an artist who wrote art criticism, and he is clearly in his element when he explores how art forms our impressions not only of the external world, but as also a reflection of who we are. Some of the most moving passages in the novel show art as self-expression and a means to touch others.

The Marriage Artist is so beautifully rendered that I found myself moved almost to tears at its conclusion. What Andrew Winer does with his words is paint a portrait of his characters' lives against the backdrop of history. And yet, although history is certainly important in the novel, it does not define it. Winer's gift is his ability to demonstrate the timeless nature of our ruminations about life, death and faith.

I was blown away by this novel. Very few authors are able to explore such complex themes with such brilliance. I was carried away by the prose, enraptured by the characters, and felt compelled to keep turning the pages. The Marriage Artist is a must read for those readers who love literary fiction. It will certainly be one of the best books I have read this year.

Highly recommended.

  • Quality of Writing: Five stars
  • Characters: Five stars
  • Plot: Five stars

Overall Rating: Five stars out of five

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-10-31
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