BOOK CLUB – The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer

The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, a joint venture between me and Jen from Devourer of Books.  Today we are discussing about The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer which was published by Picador Books.

About The Marriage Artist:

When the wife of renowned art critic Daniel Lichtmann plunges to her death, she is not alone. Lying next to her is her suspected lover, Benjamin Wind, the very artist Daniel most championed. Tormented by questions about the circumstances of their deaths, Daniel dedicates himself to uncovering the secrets of their relationship and the inspiration behind Wind’s dazzling final exhibition.

What Daniel discovers is a web of mysteries leading back to pre-World War II Vienna and the magnificent life of Josef Pick, a forgotten artist who may have been the twentieth century’s greatest painter of love. But the most astonishing discoveryis what connects these two artists acrosshalf a century: a remarkable woman whose response to the tragedy of her generation offers Daniel answers to the questions he never knew to ask.

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page.

Let’s go!

  • What were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • Did you find the title to be an appropriate one for the novel? Did it shape your experience and thoughts while reading? How?
  • What surprised you most about reading The Marriage Artist? Is there a person in the book you would most like to meet? What would you want to discuss with them?
  • Did you prefer one of the stories (historical versus contemporary) over the others? How well did they seem to work together?
  • What caused Josef’s antagonistic relationship towards marriage and how did that influence his eventual relationship with Hannah?
  • What did you think about Max’s actions and feelings towards Herman and Hannah? Why did he make the choices he did?
  • Why do you think David cared so much about Max and Benjamin’s past?
  • What kinds of questions did you have during your reading? Were they answered?

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 BOOK CLUB Picking Bones From Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

12 review copies of The Marriage Artist were provided by Picador Books in order to facilitate this discussion. Thank you so much! For another review of  The Marriage Artist, and to win a copy of the book for yourself, head on over to Caribousmom.

21 Comments

  1. Just so you all know, I’m traveling (alone with a toddler) today, so I’ll be mostly MIA during the day, but I’ll be back reading and replying to things tonight.

    So, Nicole actually picked this book, I’m not actually sure I would have read it without BOOK CLUB. It us the sort of thing that would have appealed to me though to put on my shelves dvds then I would likely never have picked it up ever to actually read.

    Part of this, though, is that I’d either ignored or forgotten about the fact there was a historical storyline as well as a contemporary one, dual time periods pull me right in, although too many writers use them poorly, with one much better developed than the other. In this case I think Winer did a good job developing both of them, although the historical storyline tended to appeal to me more. None of the characters were particularly likeable, but the switching between storylines helped me not get so sick of any of them that I just hated them, which might have been a possibility. Instead, it kept me interested in their lives and what they discovered.

    I apologize for any ridiculous typos, I’m typing on my phone and not positive I caught all the autocorrect issues.

  2. Before I start answering the questions, let me thank Nicole for suggesting this book. It is a book which I feel sure would have bounced off my radar and I would have missed it. Because of BOOK CLUB, I read it. And I LOVED it on so many levels – not the least of which was Winer’s exceptional writing. I read this book in its entirety during the Read-A-Thon…and I have to say I don’t think I have ever tackled literary fiction during that event before because usually I need fast-pace genre fiction or short works because my brain dies about 5 hours into the thing. BUT, I read and read and read – and the time flew by. I think that says a lot about what Winer was able to do with this novel. One of the best I’ve read this year.

    Did you find the title to be an appropriate one for the novel? Did it shape your experience and thoughts while reading? How?
    I found the title interesting. I always read books with the title in the back of my head, searching for what it means. And I think that this novel was in many ways Josef Pick’s story as much as the other characters in the book…so titling the book for him seemed appropriate.

    What surprised you most about reading The Marriage Artist? Is there a person in the book you would most like to meet? What would you want to discuss with them?
    What surprised me most was that there was this underlying mystery about Aleksandra’s and Benjamin’s deaths which drove the narrative – the reader gets caught up in Daniel’s quest for answers (or at least I did). And then all of a sudden there is this other story (Josef and Hannah’s story) which becomes the most important story in the book. I think the person I most would want to meet would be Hannah. I wanted to talk more about her decision to drop Herman from the train – it was such a rash choice (and could have killed him), and yet I also thought it brave – yet, Hannah did not see it that way. I wanted to know more about it.

    Did you prefer one of the stories (historical versus contemporary) over the others? How well did they seem to work together?
    I thought Winer meshed the two stories beautifully. But, I did prefer the historical story more.

    What caused Josef’s antagonistic relationship towards marriage and how did that influence his eventual relationship with Hannah?</b?
    There is a passage in the book (page 111) where Josef recognizes the lost connection to his father. He is not only disillusioned with his parents' marriage, but he is disappointed in his father. I think that was the turning point for him. Not only was he antagonistic to marriage, but to his parents – people who he wanted to be a role model for marriage. So when he meets Hannah, he does not want to love her nor marry her. He wants their relationship to be a business, something he would not care about were he to lose it. But, love is funny – eventually, he has to face the fact that he loves this women.

    What did you think about Max’s actions and feelings towards Herman and Hannah? Why did he make the choices he did?
    Max was one of my least favorite characters in the book. His actions were solely driven by resentment, jealousy and what can only be defines as hatred toward Hannah. I don’t really have any other explanations for his actions. Keeping the final work of Josef from Hannah was just evil, in my opinion.

    Why do you think David cared so much about Max and Benjamin’s past?
    Do you mean Daniel? Because knowing someone’s past helps to understand who they are. Daniel wanted to understand what had happened. He wanted to know why his wife was drawn to Benjamin – what about Benjamin was different about himself. The only way to understand Benjamin (and thus the motivations of Aleksandra) was to understand the past.

    What kinds of questions did you have during your reading? Were they answered?
    Well, I don’t think Daniel ever was able to fully understand the suicides – and whether they were in fact suicides. And so, we never really have the “mystery” explained either. Which I was okay with because that really wasn’t the point of the book.

    1. I was really surprised just how okay I was with not finding out exactly what the deal was with the alleged suicides. Usually that would drive me crazy, so I guess that means that Winer really did his job pulling me into the other storylines.

    1. Don’t worry Wendy, I am sure there will be a discussion. I am hearing from people that need a few more days. I’ll let you know when to check back in.

  3. Hi, everyone! This is the first book club I’ve ever been in, so this is all pretty new and exciting for me. Unlike the reviewers so far, though, I didn’t really enjoy this book. I also have a habit of going on and on, so please feel free to skip my rather curmudgeonly comments. Thanks for including me, though! Thoughts below:

    1. What were your general impressions of the book?

    It started out so well. The juxtaposition of the two narrative threads was compelling, and I was eager to see how they’d end up intertwining. Within the first 40 pages, though, I found Winer’s characterization suspect, even as I found his ideas intriguing. Unfortunately, by the end of it, only the characters of Max and Herman saved this book from being a total Mary-Sue. Why do all these women throw themselves at the uninteresting Daniel? Oh, sure, Winer “tells” us, but I never felt like we were *shown*. I found the appeal of both Daniel and the adult Josef bewildering, and rolled my eyes at the last few chapters with Hannah and, especially, Carmen, who was barely anything more than a consolation prize — and I REALLY hate when authors reduce what could have been a vital (usually female) character to being the protagonist’s spoils.

    The ideas, which had such a sharpness and clarity in the beginning (e.g. Daniel’s meditations on his first marriage, Hannah’s belief in God,) just foundered towards the end. It got to the point, for me, where it looked like Winer was just tossing cryptic phrases into people’s mouths and hoping something profound would come out of the jumble. One of the most egregious examples is when Hannah says, towards the end, “The Greeks were wrong about men and women completing each other. The connected are always incomplete.” What? That has nothing to do with anything! It doesn’t make sense in the narrative context, or even thematically! I did enjoy the echoing of circumstances from the past to the modern day, but silliness like “He told himself… that Aleksandra had led him here by accident” made me want to put down the book in disgust. Which, to be honest, is my main issue with Daniel, especially: that he’s so emotionally passive. Things happen to him, he doesn’t understand why, he wallows in misery then obsessively tries to figure things out when it’s too late to fix anything, even as he does nothing to fix himself so that he can take control of his own destiny and avoid having this happen to him again in the future. That fatalistic inertia is gross in an emo teenager: it’s intolerable in a grown person.

    2. Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?

    Yes. I love literary fiction, and the discussion of marriage, especially, is a topic of interest for me.

    3. Did you find the title to be an appropriate one for the novel? Did it shape your experience and thoughts while reading? How?

    Yes, it was incredibly apt, and I enjoyed Josef’s ambivalent relationship with the phrase. I could see how Daniel, undergoing the number of marriages he had/will have, can be construed to be a marriage artist himself, though, to me, there is less artistry than inelegant fumbling to the latter’s efforts.

    4. What surprised you most about reading The Marriage Artist? Is there a person in the book you would most like to meet? What would you want to discuss with them?

    I can’t even answer the last two parts of this question. Only Max and Herman seem like people, as opposed to props, and neither seem like good company.

    As to the first, to be honest, the book surprised me by turning out to be much worse than I’d expected. The first half, right up till Herman’s delivery, is both lyrical and tense, but then Winer substitutes enigmatic for meaningful and the characters just allow outside influences to determine their lives instead of taking control of their own destinies. It’s interesting how he has Hannah later derisively compare those with a strong instinct for self-preservation with nihilists, to which I posit the question: how then can the individual possibly hope to preserve communal values if the entire community is eradicated? Does not each individual carry the seed of community, and should that not be encouraged to survive, particularly in the face of unthinkable horror? It’s interesting to see how her mode of thinking is a natural progression from what she did and said to Herman on the train, which makes me think that her self-loathing is so strong that it has become her defining characteristic. And that always makes me sad: when the strongest female character in a book is defined by that more than anything else.

    5. Did you prefer one of the stories (historical versus contemporary) over the others? How well did they seem to work together?

    I suppose I preferred the historical thread because there was less Daniel; also much, much more was at stake, so the angst was deserved. The two narratives worked really, really well together, and for that, at least, I laud Mr Winer.

    6. What caused Josef’s antagonistic relationship towards marriage and how did that influence his eventual relationship with Hannah?

    I’m going to skip this question because it’s less about my opinion and more about what actually happened, and I’m sure you’ve all read the book, too :).

    7. What did you think about Max’s actions and feelings towards Herman and Hannah? Why did he make the choices he did?

    I actually enjoyed the consistency of Max’s character, of how he was jealous of the people he loved and how he hated that he was the one who wound up bringing them together. It’s a shame that he believed that love can be diminished by being shared: that’s the typical thought of the immature only child who cannot believe that his parents could love him just as well if he had to vie for attention with siblings (which isn’t to say that I agreed with Barbara’s belief that Herman could share love easily either. I do think Barbara mistook Herman’s selfishness for the self-possession it takes to love without attachment.)

    I also found it tragic and beautiful that, despite his prickliness, Max tried always to do the right thing (with the huge, awful exception of the Night of Nos.) I think he was a passionate individual who had to redirect his energies and appetites into “acceptable” channels, and that while he did as much good as he could, even unwillingly, the parts of himself that he starved of that energy corroded his soul.

    8. Why do you think David cared so much about Max and Benjamin’s past?

    Because he was obsessed with finding out if and why Aleksandra was cheating on him. Benjamin’s past was important to her, so he looked into that to find clues. I honestly cannot think he would have looked outside his self-absorption otherwise. Can you tell that, ahem, Daniel was my least favorite character in this book? 😛

    9. What kinds of questions did you have during your reading? Were they answered?

    I liked some of the plot twists. Like what happened to Herman after the train: that interlude before Max takes him back to Hannah was a gorgeous little scene.

    And that was my opinion of the book. I’m sorry if it was rather merciless, but I found so much of it maddening. I can see how other people enjoyed it: I just didn’t. Thanks so much for the opportunity, though!

    1. Doreen – I really appreciated your thoughts on this book – especially because I absolutely loved it. It always makes for an interesting discussion when there are polar views on a book. I didn’t hate Daniel as much as you did (although I do agree he was narcissistic and annoying at times). I really despised Max LOL . I never viewed Hannah as all that strong of a woman – she was self-doubting and it seemed to fit with her character that she ended up in a convent (after all, initially in the novel her intent was to get to Israel and just follow her faith while giving up on the outside world).

      But I did want to comment on one of your observations (which I agree with and think is worthy of further exploration in this discussion). You wrote: “[…]the characters just allow outside influences to determine their lives instead of taking control of their own destinies.”

      I totally agree. But, I wonder if that isn’t how life often really is for many people…especially in the case of Hannah and Josef who were swept up by the unthinkable and found themselves simply reacting. I believe many people allow the outside world to dictate their choices, and in so doing, give up the control of their lives (or believe that they are destined to “fate” rather than choice). I think that in this way, Winer got Daniel’s character spot on. He was such a narcissist and in his view, his life was intrinsically wrapped up in the external world. Things happened TO him. He was reactive to his environment. He also felt victimized by Aleksandra and Benjamin (and perhaps the world at large). So, although I am a person who believes that we can make choices which influence our destinies, I don’t think the characters in the book would necessary be true to character if they felt that way.

      What do you think?

      1. I think one of the reasons I’m more okay with Max than Daniel is because Max actually goes through things that make his flaws, if not forgivable, at least understandable. There’s no reason, besides self-absorption, for Daniel to be as narcissistic and annoying as he is. More to the point, Max deserves to be portrayed as the villain, whereas I have a problem seeing Daniel as the hero, as Winer clearly positions him to be.

        And that was why I preferred the historical story more, as you did, Wendy. The contemporary story was mostly just Daniel being a nitwit (though presented as the protagonist in order to elicit our automatic sympathy, which made me angry at the writer for being too lazy to do more to earn it,) whereas when Hannah and Josef get paralyzed by events and swept up by the unthinkable, as you say, at least it’s understandable. While I get that there are people who are that passive (and, to be honest, am impatient with same,) I just am not entertained by a novel almost entirely populated by them. The prose is beautiful, and I love how Winer uses some words in unexpected but apt ways, but when he tries to convince us of the worth/goodness of characters simply by having bad things happen to them, and then by contrasting them with even more reprehensible people, I get impatient with the novel, because it’s become an exercise instead of entertainment.

        I do realize I’m critiquing the craft behind the novel and not the story itself. I think it says something about the story’s inability to sweep me along in its narrative path that I’m this critical, though.

        Going firmly back to the story, I can see how you’d form that opinion of Hannah. She does wind up rejecting not only her belief in herself, with her self-loathing and inability to stand on her own, but also, by converting to Catholicism, her religious and cultural identity. It just bothered me that she was so strong-minded, with such a unique perspective on God and love, right up till the point where she meets Josef and falls instantly in love with him. I didn’t buy that at all. Aleksandra falling for Benjamin, I understood (though not Aleksandra falling for Daniel. Again, I don’t understand how this guy is such a chick magnet.) While I understand that there are some strong women who just crumble in the face of love-at-first-sight, however unlikely, it bothered me that this was romanticized. Josef and Hannah could barely stand each other, but Winer was depicting their relationship as true love? There were romantic, even loving gestures, but the only love that I felt rang true was Max’s for Josef.

        Now that I’ve got all that out, I have to say that I appreciate you provoking me to elucidate these opinions that have mostly been simmering in the back of my head under “Gah! Dislike! Dislike!” Thank you, and let me know what you think, as well :).

        1. Interesting, I would have in no way ever thought that Winer wanted Daniel to be a hero of any sort. He is certainly the protagonist, but I think that only necessarily means “hero” in children’s books, and perhaps fantasy. Particularly in the often morally ambiguous literary fiction in which The Marriage Artist resides, the protagonist is at least as often an anti-hero, and that is how I would classify Daniel. I also don’t think he was quite as self-absorbed as we think – or at least, after his wife’s death he is starting to grow. He certainly began his interest in the past as a means to understand what went wrong with his second marriage, but it seemed to me that he became interested in the story and the people involved for their own sakes. Certainly he seemed no more disappointed than I was not to actually receive any closure as to Aleksandra’s death.

        2. Well, I wasn’t really trying to provoke you!

          So here are my thoughts in response to your thoughts…

          Like Jen, I don’t see Daniel as the hero, although he is clearly one of the protagonists and in many ways drives the narrative with his curiosity and need to know what happened between Benjamin and Aleksandra. I don’t think Winer tried to make him a hero – I think he showed us just how incredibly flawed Daniel really was (like we all are) and I do think he showed he was capable of some personal growth.

          I may be more tolerant of passive people than you are *smiles* – but, I don’t think that all the characters’ actions were passive. Daniel, yes, reacts…but he also seeks answers actively. Hannah, with her decision to toss her child from a moving train, makes a distinct choice which although impulsive, was also (in my opinion) very brave. One part of the novel I found incredibly well-done was that of exploring identity…and I thought ALL these characters were struggling with identity. I didn’t find the novel entertaining in the least – but I don’t think that was the point. I was mesmerized by it. I don’t think a novel has to “entertain” to be worth the read.

          Lastly, re: women instantly falling for the men in the book and that changing the course of their lives – well, it may not be something that is laudable, but it happens all the time. And I do think in the case of Hannah, that it was not surprising. People were fleeing in the face of the Nazis, they thought they might not survive. I think that changes the way one looks at their life. Faced with death, many people simply realize that the striving upward in life is less important than the people they are with…so love and all its messiness is bound to become part of that kind of story.

          It is clear that you and I are almost at polar opposite opinions re: this book…but I will say, that a book which generates this kind of impassioned discussion has some merit whichever side you fall on 🙂

          1. I think the point you make about them not necessarily being PASSIVE, but definitely being REACTIVE is a good one, Wendy. That is closer to how I could classify them as well. We’re also seeing them all at particularly traumatic and overwhelming times in their lives, which are times that, for many people, lend themselves more to reaction than action.

            1. Right, Jen. I agree – traumatic events definitely have a way of dictating our responses. Many people following trauma simply find themselves “led” by their emotions to the event, often making decisions they might not have made in other situations.

              1. “…but I will say, that a book which generates this kind of impassioned discussion has some merit whichever side you fall on”

                And all I could think was “Twilight” and shudder :). Speaking of which, I’ve read enough bad fiction in my lifetime to know when a character/protagonist is being positioned as the hero of the piece, and I have a hard time believing that Winer didn’t intend that for Daniel, especially with his new-found fertility in the end. I love morally ambiguous literary fiction as much as the next well-read person, but protagonists, by virtue of their position in the novel as our POV characters, elicit an automatic sympathy, which I thought was a lazy way for Winer to get us to care when he didn’t then write anything else to earn it. For example, why does anyone care about Humbert Humbert in Lolita? It’s certainly not because he’s a good person. Nabokov, however, does an amazing job of making us care, with his skill as a writer and understanding of humanity (see also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Adiga’s White Tiger.) Winer just plops Daniel down in the middle of events and calls it a day. I found that to be shockingly lazy.

                Haha, sorry, realized I was obsessing about craft again :). So yes, all the characters react to the terrible things that happen in their lives, but that doesn’t make them less passive, it just means they’re not dead (yet.) It bothered me that they so often didn’t act to make things better, or even follow through on their intentions. Hannah marries Josef so they can flee Vienna… then they don’t, because they’re “in love” (and some other reckless nonsense about their parents. See my earlier questions re: “nihilists.”) Daniel obsessively tries to find out more about the man who might have been his wife’s lover… then stops, because he’s knocked up some woman who’s less a personality than a cardboard figure fashioned of sheer wish-fulfillment. I understand that people can actually be like this in real life (well, with the exception of the wish-fulfillment part,) but an entire novel about that isn’t innovative or revelatory or — to me, at least — worthwhile.

                Though I’m guessing the fact that, yes, I expect the novels I read to entertain me is the greatest difference in our opinions, Wendy :). I like having my thoughts provoked and stimulated, and while the first half did a pretty good job of that, the many drawbacks, to me, were too much to overlook in the end. I did give it 2 stars on Goodreads, though, because I didn’t think it was entirely rubbish. I just didn’t think it was very good.

                1. Well, Doreen, I think at some point we will have to agree to disagree.

                  I haven’t read Twilight, but I’ve heard about it and I don’t think a comparison to Winer’s work is really fair (although I think maybe you were joking a bit given the smiley face).

                  I should clarify re: my wish for entertainment in a novel. Of course, I do like to be entertained. But the word “entertainment” connected to a novel which deals with such heavy themes that Winer’s does and is at least partly set during the Holocaust, doesn’t seem like the appropriate word. You said you like having your thoughts provoked and stimulated – so do I … and I felt The Marriage Artist did that.

                  I won’t say the novel was perfect (no novel is), but for me, this was a wonderfully written book, craft and all. No novel is loved (or hated) universally – that is why book discussions can be a lot of fun and provide insight that a reader might miss on their own. I appreciate your thoughts and feelings even if I disagree with your conclusions!

                  1. I thought we’d agreed to disagree several posts ago! 🙂 Seriously, though, it isn’t my intent to convert you to my point of view: I just find it interesting how our viewpoints are shaking out other ideas, at least on my end.

                    To clarify, I wasn’t comparing The Marriage Artist to Twilight directly, I was merely applying your statement more universally, hence the quote. Also, I don’t think that one can’t be entertained by serious subjects. I would re-read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich” in a heartbeat (and/or if I didn’t have so many other books to read first) but I don’t think the author’s ability to entertain at all undercuts the seriousness of the topic at hand. To port this argument to another medium: is Spielberg’s ability to entertain his audience inappropriate because his subject matter is the Holocaust, or the Normandy invasion? I’m not arguing with your admiration of the book for tackling heavy themes with such deft language: I just wish Winer had done (much) better with characterization and the development of ideas.

                    Thanks for taking the time to hammer out these ideas with me, though! It’s certainly helped clarify my position on the book even more :).

  4. I haven’t read the book yet but I find the synopsis interesting. I think the story is really mysterious as well. This will be the kind of book that will keep me wondering what will happen next. The title makes the book sounds like a savior for married couples though.

  5. Alright, I was able to start this book a couple nights ago and am 80 pages in. I am surprised that Daniel gave up, what seemed to be, a perfectly good marriage, mostly because of the baby making issue and wound up in the exact same position with Aleksandra.

    I always tell people marriage is one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had. It’s takes a great deal of work to make a marriage continue to work. I think he gave up too easily for what? Infatuation? Boredom? A change?

    I’m starting to see where the two stories are going to connect and am definitely curious.

  6. I had started the book but was really struggling to get into it! 🙁 But I’m starting over and I think that will help! Probably it will wind up being one of those books I just love when I finally get into it!