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The Marriage Machine

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Hamish Hamilton, London, 1975
(hardback price: 3.50; 272 pages)

dedication: For Jenny

The blurb on the back:

In 1947 the Marriage Machine stood in a New York bar. For a nickel it dispensed a truncated version of the Christian marriage service, a cellophane packet of confetti and a miniature marriage certificate which dropped into a pocket like a church door. Seventeen-year-old Marion, on a visit from England, married Johnny Hartman in front of the Machine. He filled in their names on the certificate and with this warranty they went to bed, although, the reputation of GIs being what it was, Marion's friend Angela refused to believe they had not done so before.
Twenty years later, on the voyage home to England, Marion remembers her love affair with Johnny, their real wedding in the Berkshire village church and a third ceremony (for fun, Johnny said) in a Las Vegas Instant Marriage Chapel, where a plastic corsage was included in the price of the service.
Marion was twelve when a GI first tried to pick her up. At school she and Angela instigated The Cult Amerigo and read copies of
Life and Esquire in the playing field. The wartime infiltration of American soldiers had a symbolic glamour, a train of association which began with the red wrapper of a Hershey bar and ended with the ideal of a man. Marion thought that marrying Johnny was the realization of that ideal, but she had not anticipated the rich, scarcely-integrated German-American family dominated by her hostile mother-in-law. Even Edie, her small daughter, was alienated from her.
When Marion and Johnny moved to Los Angeles, they attempted to re-establish their marriage. In their baby son, James, they both saw the embodiment of their hopes. For Marion there was the opportunity to instil the Anglicism she had once longed to abandon, and for Johnny, the dreams of making a baseball player of his son. It was the pressures on James, torn between the pleasures of an English holiday and the demands of his Little League baseball coach, which made them all victims of the marriage machine.

opening lines:
We were married three times if you count the machine.

Gillian Freeman is a wonderful, wonderful writer, and she got better as she went on. This is twenty years on from The Liberty Man and, however good that was, this is sheer genius. The storyline is on a small scale - a girl from the Thames Valley marries a US soldier in the aftermath of the Second World War - but the details and the characterization are so beautiful that for long periods I lost track of the fact that I was reading: I just found myself immersed in the world she created.

The central core of the book is the gap between the reality of war-time Britain and the fantasy world of the States, the aspiration to glamour and the subsequent home-sickness. The period is beautifully evoked and is a joy unto itself, but the tension between British and American culture is as applicable now as in the period described, and the sense of identity crisis remains a key part of our society - it's all still relevant, for pity's sake.

What's particularly lovely - amongst so many things - is the subtlety of observation of, for example, the way in which the speed of cultural change transforms the superficial attractiveness of America:

'Does he still have a crew-cut?' She had not seen Johnny for several years.
'Of course.' The style, which had devastated us in our teens now aroused a different emotional response. 'Thin, grey and reactionary.' (p.11)

But this is an impossible book to quote from: it's too perfect a unity to split up. Seldom is such artistic achievement so immediately accessible. Don't miss it on any account.

The divine Ms Freeman


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The Liberty Man
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Jack Would Be A Gentleman
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The Leather Boys
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The Leader
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Nazi Lady