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The Marriage Artist: A Novel [Paperback]

Andrew Winer

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Book Description

Oct. 25 2011

When the wife of renowned art critic Daniel Lichtmann plunges to her death, she is not alone. Lying next to her is Benjamin Wind, the very artist Daniel most championed. Dedicating himself to uncovering the secrets of their relationship, Daniel discovers a web of mysteries leading back to pre--World War II Vienna. Ambitious, haunting, and stunningly written, The Marriage Artist is an “elaborate psycho-political-sexual puzzle, with...hard truths, startling visions, and eerie insights into the mystical and memorializing powers of art, and that endless hunger we call love” (Booklist).

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (Oct. 25 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312610726
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312610722
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14 x 2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 340 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,742,505 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


“Moves between lyricism and noir to hint at those mysteries less easily explained, such as the nature of identity—and the confounding bonds between husband and wife.”

“Intricately wrought. . . There are passages of great beauty tenderly delineating the mysteries of love and creativity.”
The Washington Post

“A story that is engrossing and haunting. . . important.” —The Salt Lake Tribune

“Powerful . . . ambitious . . . audacious.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred review)

“A tour de force of provocative ideas . . . expressed through emotionally riveting characters.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)

“Andrew Winer is a formidable writer. He has erected an amazing Tower of Babel, a tower of history, love, marriage and art, Europe and America. In Winer's building, though, there is no confusion of languages—or only to the extent that it can fuel the masterful plot. This novel is a page-turner with a deeper meaning, a very rare amalgam indeed.”
—Adam Zagajewski, author of Eternal Enemies and A Defense of Ardor

“In this intricate and far-ranging novel, Andrew Winer writes brilliantly about art and love, history, debts that can and can't be paid, fatherhood in all its guises, the importance of bearing witness, the fragile border between mortality and immortality, the speakable and the unspeakable. The Marriage Artist weaves together the lives of characters, past and present, with consummate skill, and the result is an utterly absorbing and profound novel.”
—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street

“A powerful intellect, fearless emotion, and gift for provocative metaphorical narrative, all drive this sweeping, unflaggingly intense novel. The Marriage Artist takes on big themes—love, death, faith, history—with a riveting mix of seriousness and enchantment.”
—Francisco Goldman, author of The Divine Husband

“Winer creates complex characters by sketching compelling portraits. . . The result is a story that is engrossing and haunting.” —

“Unforgettable . . . evocative . . . lyrical . . . The Marriage Artist gives us a reason to celebrate.” —Bookpage

“A fearless examination of sexual power, love. . . hatred between fathers and sons, maternal instinct [and] grief.” —The Rumpus 

“A mystery, a romance and a ghost story, and the author is adept at weaving all of these narrative threads into a single compelling tale.” —The Jewish Journal

“Breath-bating . . . a high-minded fusion of dark anti-love story and ethnographic detective fiction.” —The Boston Globe

“An intense and complex examination of love. . . . a mystery that raises the question of how memory, identity and love are entangled.” —Star Tribune

About the Author

Andrew Winer is the author of The Marriage Artist and The Color Midnight Made. Formerly an artist who wrote art criticism, he teaches at the University of California, Riverside, where he has directed the MFA program in creative writing. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction and is married to the writer Charmaine Craig, with whom he has two daughters.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A literary page-turner Oct. 26 2010
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on
Andrew Winer has written a potboiler that is also literary. Writing about such a serious subject as the Holocaust sometimes constricts a novelist into a more conventional form of storytelling/historical fiction. But as we have seen with such books as Frederick Reiken's Day for Night and Nicole Krauss's postmodern Great House, as well as Death as a narrator in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the only unwritten rules are to grip the reader in a credible story and to edify through words. Winer has done both, and he puts his unique stamp on it with his fluid, page-turning, thriller style blended with his out-of-the-box imagination and mellifluous prose. Like Plath did so craftily with The Bell Jar, Winer will reach a wider audience by his hewing of the elevated with the pedestrian. Saul Bellow meets Stephen King. I applaud his ambitious style, which he succeeded with on many levels.

"...the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us..."

Two stories parallel and merge, reaching forward in one, backward in the other, fusing in a transmigration of redemption. One starts in 1928 Vienna, a time when the Jews, once so integral to the art and intellectual community, are being persecuted. Some Jews, such as the novel's Pick family, have converted to Catholicism in order to assimilate (which I say with irony, as assimilation in this case was more like betrayal to one's faith) and garner financial success without oppression. Young Josef Pick, the son of converts, visits his Jewish grandfather Pommeranz in the very poor Jewish district and begins his career as a ketubah artist, or "marriage artist."

The second storyline is the one that opens the novel in modern times. A highly acclaimed native American (Blackfoot) artist, Benjamin Wind, has plunged to his death with the wife of an esteemed art critic, Daniel Lichtmann, whose glorious accolades to Wind made the sculptor famous. Aleksandra Lichtmann, a beautiful, seductive survivor of Russian anti-semitism, was a woman of rare charm and dauntless courage, a woman who spoke her mind resolutely and with artless candor. Her husband, Daniel, is heartbroken and suffused with guilt for falling into an emotional detachment with her (for reasons I won't go into--readers will want to see the details revealed on their own). This is further complicated by the fact that their marriage is a second marriage for both of them.

In Jewish tradition, a ketubah is a document, one that is fundamental to the traditional Jewish marriage and is a form of Jewish ceremonial art. It outlines the responsibilities of the groom to the bride and is written in Aramaic, the vernacular of Talmudic times. (I strongly recommend that readers google ketubah images in order to see the stunning, detailed artwork involved.) The ketubah is also fundamental to the themes and storylines of this novel.

Josef Pick, at age ten, becomes immediately arrested by the poignancy and beauty of ketubot art and, with a mythical and mystical spirit, is imbued with an aesthetic grace that permeates him and allows him to create a ketubah, largely influenced by his childhood desire for his feuding parents to fall back in love. He eclipses his grandfather's talent and is soon mentored by him. Pommeranz, who earns few schillings blessing fowl and meat, becomes a Jewish star with his grandson. The storyline with Josef continues into adulthood, highlighting his relationship with his lifelong friend, Max Weiner, and Josef's wife, Hannah, a complex and triangulating trio of passion and suffering. This story takes us into the terror of the Holocaust.

Daniel is determined to uncover the seeds of this tragedy. Were Aleksandra and Benjamin having an affair? Were they unhappy, filled with guilt, or did someone push them? The police haven't found any clues to a crime, and Daniel commences to investigate on his own. This leads him into his own crimes of the heart as well as important details of his wife's history and the provenance of Benjamin's ethnic roots. Wind's artwork is explored with exquisite sympathy and philosophical mien and woven into a deep abyss of pain, symmetry, and expression. This storyline also leads back into the marrow of the Holocaust, which gives the novel its quintessence. Two artists from two generations bifurcate and meld. The reader is pulled into an intricate labyrinth of lies and love, horror and shame, betrayal and faithfulness.

Winer's prose is masterful, with a restrained floridity that anoints the story with poetic lyricism. This is the second review I have written that compels me to allude to Flaubert's mot juste, the ability to find the exact right word or expression. His metaphors and imagery are scintillating and prolific, and I will dare to say orgasmic.

"She laughed at him with an unbearable harshness. The laughter spread across her features like a fast-moving storm front, until it was all darkness."

In describing a created ketubah:

"...first as blooming yellow florets in a tussock of dandelions and then as gossamer ball angels raised by the wind to the impure geometry of the living...the sky is a fabric of seraphic, thickly flowered souls whispering advice at its edges."

There are flaws. Winer tends to telegraph events, but he is one of the few authors I know who can make exposition emotional, stirring. Some plot turns are too quick and convenient, preventing the reader from forming his or her own conclusions, or from finding the spaces between the words. When Winer is describing art, it is exalting, and it moves the reader to interpret and have a go at personal translation within his own. But with the plot, he intermittently spells out too much information, and truncates some elements of the story. And some components (which feed the potboiler aspect) are a bit contrived and overwrought, and I had to wince, especially the emergence of another, later romance in the book that felt inorganic.

In a lesser author, these blemishes would have decreased my overall satisfaction. But, despite this criticism, there is something about the whole here transcending the sum of its parts, (and I am not condescending in this observation) and the parts interlocking in a resonant and finally delicate and ecstatic way that moved me to accept the warts and come away with my heart on fire and my senses roused to tears. This is a highly engaging, memorable, exuberant, and yes, even boisterous and entertaining Holocaust and modern tragedy tale.

This review is based on a complementary advanced reading copy I received from the publisher.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sweeping and emotional, unlike anything I've read for quite some time. Nov. 2 2010
By Alayne - Published on
The narrative of Andrew Winer's The Marriage Artist is akin to two train tracks heading toward each other and meeting at a final destination. Imagine watching these trains from the sky, see them converge, but sit back and enjoy the view. Look at the landscape, watch the passing trees, and eavesdrop on fellow travelers' conversations and stories which only make sense once both trains have pulled into the station.

Track one is the story of art critic Daniel Lichtmann, whose wife Aleksandra plunged to her death alongside Benjamin Wind, one of Daniel's favorite artists. Whether his wife and the artist were lovers is unknown. What she was doing on the roof of his building, and whether the two jumped to their deaths by choice or force, also remains a mystery. Daniel searches for answers and receives unexpected information in the form of an elderly wheelchair-bound man who attends both funerals.

Track two starts in 1928 Vienna when young Josef Pick discovers his artistic talent and trains with his grandfather to paint Jewish marriage contracts called ketubah. This track follows young Josef through his teenage and early adult years, during the tumultuous start of World War II and the purging of Jewish citizens from Vienna, until it meets with Daniel Lichtmann's story in the present day.

At times both sweeping and engaging, here is an author who knows his tools and how to use them. Winer's prose ranges from lilting and poetic to stream-of-consciousness. Emotional and poignant, The Marriage Artist is a vast and tremendous dramatic novel of history and heartache. Of the bonds that bring people together and the devices that tear us apart.

Not knowing where the plot is taking us, the reader has no choice but to read onward, trusting in the author to reveal his secrets. And reveal he does. Winer selectively shares bits of historical ingredients to define the puzzle of present day, piecing each corner edge to its partner. Only when the whole puzzle is complete can we truly see and appreciate the splendor of the picture. Beautifully wrought and imagined, The Marriage Artist is remarkably unlike anything I've read in quite some time.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The shades of love and memory Jan. 18 2011
By Friederike Knabe - Published on
The opening pages of THE MARRIAGE ARTIST hit the reader with a bang - literally. Two people fall to their death from the roof of a New York building... Did they jump, or were they - or one of them - pushed? Who really are they and how had they been connected to each other? These disturbing questions are preoccupying Daniel Lichtman, husband of one and friend and admirer of the other. For the months following the drama we are intimately drawn into Daniel's emotional quest for the truths behind their deaths, and by extension, of their lives. In this debut novel Andrew Winer delves deep into all the rainbow shades of love and its complexities, of relationships and the profound bearing that family heritage, traditions, and genes impress on the next generations.

The novel's two complementary narrative streams take us on the one hand into Daniel's conflicted mind and his life before and with his late wife, Alexandra. On the other we become privy to the history of a family that may shed light on the background of Alexandra's apparent lover, the famous American native artist, Benjamin Wind. Daniel, a respected art critic and admirer of Benjamin's art, is confronted with a mystery that he feels compelled to solve by every possible route. At the artist's memorial a surprise encounter with an old man in a wheelchair opens up a completely new line of research for Daniel. Meetings and disclosures that follow over time result in Daniel taking his quest eventually back to Vienna some sixty years after the war.

Winer's novel has at least two forcefully developed stories at its core: the contemporary story around the main protagonist, Daniel, and the back story that leads him and, even more vividly, the reader all the way back to pre-war Vienna and the ever-growing restrictions and threats imposed on the Jewish community there following the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. This story, told chronologically and later in flashbacks, is inviting us into several different protagonists' hearts and minds, leading us to advance and deeper knowledge of events, context and past relationships than Daniel may or may not be able to discover himself. At the centre of this story is Joseph Pick, the Marriage Artist of the title, and his friend Max Wiener. Friends since their early youth, they are emotionally tied together by an oath they took then and that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Each story is enriched by the protagonists' reflections on all the shades of love, memory, commitment and loyalty, on family and other intense relationships. While parts of the novel totally absorbed and captured me, I felt that other chapters were overwritten with too many details clouding the profound overall messages. Furthermore, some events seemed so improbably and too much reliant on unlikely coincidences that I found it difficult to suspend disbelief. In the final analysis, for me at least, too many diverse story threads in the novel and, in particular, the recurrent elaboration to an almost philosophical level and into minutiae of emotional themes such as "marriage", were overwhelming to the point of reducing my interest in the protagonists and their lives' stories. [Friederike Knabe]
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stunning Nov. 7 2010
By Novel Chatter - Published on
The Marriage Artist opens with two lifeless bodies on the New York summer pavement, a woman and a man. They appear to have fallen. Was it a suicide pact? Was one person pushed? Was there a struggle and both fell? Or was it something else entirely? The woman was Aleksandra Lichtmann, the wife of art critic Daniel Lichtmann. The other body was that of artist Benjamin Wind, who Daniel helped propel into fame.

Then story then takes us back to 1928 Vienna and the world of ten-year-old Josef Pick. While Pick is visiting with his maternal Grandfather Pommeranz (a failed Rabbi and struggling ketubah artist) the grandfather discovers there is an amazing artistic talent dormant within the young Josef when the young man begins to create a sacred ketubah, the illuminated marriage contract of the Jews.

Author Andrew Winer has juxtaposed the seemingly unrelated worlds of Daniel Lichtmann and Josef Pick in a carefully woven tapestry of family struggles, heartache and denials stretching over decades and continents. As Daniel starts on his journey to uncover the truth of his wife's death he's forced confront his own beliefs and what's important to him in his world. He also must learn to understand the motivations of people and their far reaching consequences.

Like the story's young Josef Pick, Winer is also an artist. However, it is his use of words and the images they create that make The Marriage Artist the compelling work that it is. I must add that I got a bit lost for a short period as I felt the story bogged down towards the middle act, but the ending more than made up for the short term issue.

I do recommend this book, it's a heartfelt study of family, faith, trust, truth and what we do to survive.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Save Your Money Jan. 14 2011
By SuziSunday - Published on
Seduced by a glowing review, I got this novel from the library. I gave up half-way through. Pretentious and overwrought. These characters have no resemblance to real people. They're abstract concepts spouting bogus insights. So glad I didn't actually pay for this.

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