When We Argued All Night

By – April 20, 2012

Alice Mat­ti­son’s new nov­el explores the life­long friend­ship between two men. It begins in 1936. Artie Saltz­man and Harold Abramovitz are vaca­tion­ing in a rus­tic cab­in by a lake in the Adiron­dacks, and we observe how much they care for each oth­er despite their dif­fer­ences and com­pet­i­tive­ness. Artie starts out as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er inter­est­ed in chron­i­cling a Com­mu­nist ral­ly, while Harold is more curi­ous about the ideals behind it and gets involved. The sto­ry unfolds through details of their lives in Man­hat­tan and Brook­lyn from World War II to the McCarthy and Viet­nam eras and the 60s and 70s, right through to the new mil­len­ni­um. We learn about the two men’s char­ac­ters through their var­i­ous work and per­son­al rela­tion­ships and through telling dia­logue with each oth­er and with their wives and chil­dren. The set­tings are ren­dered beau­ti­ful­ly, the pace is thought­ful and mea­sured, and the plot and dia­logue are about real-life sit­u­a­tions of the times. Polit­i­cal and social opin­ions are pas­sion­ate­ly aired, often with painful fall­out. Themes such as sex­u­al free­dom, pol­i­tics, men­tal ill­ness, unem­ploy­ment, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, ped­a­gogy, gen­der roles, and par­ent and grand­par­ent­hood are all tack­led fear­less­ly. While the plot is on the heavy side, I was impressed by Mattison’s sen­si­tive writ­ing and will seek out her pre­vi­ous novels.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams is a Cuban-born, Brook­lyn-raised, Long Island-resid­ing mom. She is Hadas­sah Nas­sau’s One Region One Book chair­la­dy, a free­lance essay­ist, and a cer­ti­fied yoga instruc­tor who has loved review­ing books for the JBC for the past ten years.

Discussion Questions

1.The title When We Argued All Night tells us right from the start that this book is about peo­ple who don’t always get along. What is the rela­tion­ship between argu­ment and love in this nov­el? Is Harold and Artie’s friend­ship stronger or less strong because they argue? Artie is par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­agree­able. Can you love him anyway? 

2.Talking about Hen­ry James’s nov­el The Por­trait of a Lady, Harold and Myra dis­agree about the final scene, in which Isabel Archer goes back to her evil hus­band even though she could get away. Harold says James means her to be hero­ic, or else there’s no rea­son for it to be the end of the book: the final act is her achieve­ment, what she accom­plish­es. Myra says What does any­one accom­plish?” and that ques­tion titles the first six chap­ters of the book. What is accom­plish­ment in this nov­el? For Artie? For Harold? For Brenda? 
3. The first chap­ter is enti­tled The Whistler.” What does music mean to Artie? Photography? 
4. World events affect the lives of these char­ac­ters at least as much as their per­son­al his­to­ries. How do events and atti­tudes in the soci­ety around them influ­ence Harold’s mem­ber­ship in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with it? Harold and Artie’s teach­ing careers? Bren­da’s will­ing­ness to con­sid­er that she might be gay? 
5. Toward the end of the book, Bren­da’s son David becomes a writer, choos­ing to write non­fic­tion because he wants to recount the real events in his life, even though they are not dra­mat­ic. He goes to grad­u­ate school to learn how to con­vey his strong feel­ings with­out invent­ing excit­ing events. Must fic­tion exag­ger­ate life to make the read­er care? What makes writ­ing — fic­tion, non­fic­tion, or poet­ry — affect a read­er if it is about peo­ple to whom noth­ing much hap­pens? Do qui­et events in fic­tion speak to you as much as excit­ing ones? 
6. Late in his life Harold tells David that he regrets noth­ing, because each part of his life, even the parts he has been ashamed of, has led to some­thing he cher­ish­es. Is that a con­vinc­ing argu­ment? Harold is always aware of the wish to be a good per­son — but is he a good per­son? What about Artie, who rarely thinks in those terms? 
7. What is the mean­ing of the cab­in in the Adiron­dacks for the char­ac­ters in this novel?
8. Nel­son is a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in this nov­el, espe­cial­ly for Harold and Bren­da. What do you think of Bren­da’s deci­sion to dri­ve Nel­son to the bridge, and her sub­se­quent actions there? Is Harold a good father to Nel­son — or is that an unfair question? 
9. Harold and Artie both lose their jobs as a result of McCarthy­ism, but the effect of this dif­fi­cult event on each of their lives is quite dif­fer­ent. Is this just chance? How is it con­sis­tent with their ear­li­er lives? 
10. Nei­ther Harold nor Artie is an obser­vant Jew, but being Jew­ish mat­ters to both of them. How does Jew­ish­ness play out in their lives? What makes them feel Jew­ish? As the chil­dren of immi­grants, how are they like or unlike Jews who are sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions removed from the old coun­try? What do they have in com­mon with the chil­dren of immi­grants from oth­er eth­nic groups?