Review

Peyton Amberg

by Tama Janowitz



Tama Janowitz burst onto the literary scene in the 1980s with the
publication of her bestselling story collection SLAVES OF NEW YORK,
which deftly chronicled the insecurities and eccentricities of a
colorful menagerie of city dwelling singles. Her subsequent books
have been similar send-ups of Manhattan life, but with PEYTON
AMBERG, Janowitz charts a new course as she turns her acerbic eye
on married life and its malcontents.

PEYTON AMBERG is the MADAME BOVARY of our time: a modern-day
domestic drama of longing, regret, resentment, and dreams
unfulfilled. Similar to the infamously restless Emma Bovary, the
title character in this novel is a deeply unhappy woman who revolts
against the confines of her married life and its middle-class
trappings through a series of adulterous affairs. It is only
through these illicit liaisons that she is able to feel alive,
whole and in control of her destiny. Peyton is in perpetual pursuit
of an elusive and fleeting happiness, convinced that each sexual
encounter is going to be the key to her salvation --- the thing
that will fill the void.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks into a dysfunctional family,
she had learned early on that her beauty was her only ticket out of
a life of poverty. Desperate to escape this dreary blue-collar
destiny, Peyton married young to an ambitious but boorish dental
student. While at first she couldn't believe her good fortune in
securing a loving husband and comfortable middle class future, she
quickly grows restless and disillusioned by the marriage that she
thought would be her deliverance. Her new life as a middle-class
housewife suddenly feels provincial, her new husband tiresome, and
she is overcome with resentment and regret that she could have done
better.

She returns to her job as a travel agent, which provides some
respite from reality by giving her the opportunity to travel on
junkets to exotic locales. Her corruption begins innocently enough
on a solo trip to Brazil when her wallet is stolen and she is
befriended and seduced by a rich and handsome older man. After
returning home, the staidness of her life and marriage pales in
comparison to the excitement of the affair, and thus, like a junkie
craving the next high, Peyton embarks on a series of sordid
liaisons in an effort to stave off her gnawing discontent.

While these dalliances allow her to briefly escape herself, each
encounter leaves her emptier and more unfulfilled than before. A
downward spiral of shame and degradation ensues until, in the end,
she is left with nothing. Her youth and beauty have evaporated and
she is rendered completely pathetic and devoid of humanity. Alone
in a seamy Belgium hotel room, she realizes too late that what she
had might not have been so bad after all.

While Peyton's dissatisfaction with her station in life and her
desire for better is perhaps a universal human condition, we are
unable to feel sympathy because of her remorseless and
self-indulgent actions. Her unwillingness to accept and appreciate
the realities of her life ensures that her moral corruption is
inevitable. The theme of destiny vs. free will is continually
played out in this novel. While Peyton makes choices that lead to
her downfall, she is also a victim of circumstances. The
constraints of her upbringing, including lack of money and
education, gave her limited options from the beginning.

But whatever disadvantages she may have had, there is little to
make one pity the numb, one-dimensionally drawn character of Peyton
Amberg. Her vast disappointment with life and her feelings of
futility and powerlessness are echoed by the novel's airless and
nihilistic atmosphere wherein time seems to stand still. This
effect is created in part by the unusual and disjointed narrative
technique that tells the story from the future moving backwards,
interspersing slices of Peyton's married life with vignettes of her
liaisons. The story ends where it began, some twenty years into the
future. While this is a powerful morality tale and work of social
commentary with strong echoes of MADAME BOVARY, its relentlessly
downbeat nihilism and lack of a redemptive outcome may ultimately
turn off readers.

Reviewed by Joni Rendon on January 22, 2011

Peyton Amberg
by Tama Janowitz

  • Publication Date: October 22, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312318448
  • ISBN-13: 9780312318444