52 fights

52 fights

Jennifer Patterson and Matt Samuel live in an affluent development in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It's the type of neighborhood where you could imagine well-toned homemakers power walking their purebred dogs in the middle of the day and the 1960s-era houses are roomy and vigilantly tended.

Their cocoa-colored split-level fits the image of suburban perfection. Its interior reflects a 1969-vintage affluence that now seems charmingly retro: a sunken tub with swan fixtures, a built-in bar in the basement, a dramatic front-room window that gazes out at the velvety greens of the Minneapolis Golf Club.

Amid these posh surroundings, Jennifer is a bit of a paradox. She answers the door in a raggedy no-name sweatshirt and jeans. Shiny, plastic baby toys fill the front room and luxurious dog hair -- courtesy of Mika, the family's fine-boned Golden Retriever -- speckle the entryway.

She is soon joined by Matt, dressed in perfectly pressed khaki trousers and an impeccable burnt-orange polo shirt. At first glance, the two appear -- as they say -- as different as night and day. Jennifer is quiet and introspective. Matt is the sort who will chat up a stranger in the airplane seat next to him. She jokes she has two hours of ambition a day. Matt is high energy. She doesn't mind a little clutter. He favors a well-tended house where paperwork is stacked at tidy right angles.

In practice, though, the two seem ideally matched. They speak to each other with a respectful assertiveness that many couples would envy. They finish each other's sentences, either to complete a thought or gently clarify what the other person said. And they genuinely seem to like each other.

Still, both say married life wasn't always so agreeable. Although the couple celebrated their third anniversary in June and have an eight-month-old son named Max, they recall the first year of marriage as a marathon of conflict. By the time the horrors of the first year were fading into memory, Jen had written a book, 52 Fights: A Newlywed's Confession. Or, as Matt and Jen prefer to call it: 32 Fights and 20 Negotiations. "The title is eye-catching, but it's not entirely accurate," Jennifer says. "They're not knock-down, drag-out fights. It's really about the issues that arise in every marriage."

The book chronicles the disagreements and resolutions of the early months of marriage. Jen's essays are light-hearted but perceptive, frank but never cruel.

Since 52 Fights debuted, Matt and Jennifer have become poster children for the first year of marriage. They have been interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News and were prominently featured in a series on newlyweds for Al Gore's new channel, Current TV. They will appear on "The Montel Williams Show" this fall, and they are currently in early negotiations to develop a television show.

"There's so much stuff out there on how to get ready for your wedding, but we haven't found anything like Jennifer's book out there. There are no road maps for what to do when you return home from the honeymoon and the glow starts to fade," says Matt.

He is a successful high-tech patent lawyer, and it's easy to see why. If you had to go to court, you would want Matt beside you.

All stereotypes about litigious sharks aside, he is friendly, optimistic and innately likeable. He speaks with an assurance that suggests quiet confidence; he carries an air of no- nonsense dependability.

Which begs the question: How does he feel about this book? He does, after all, figure prominently in all 52 essays. His personality, strengths and quirks are exposed, albeit lovingly, for all to see.

Matt doesn't mind. The very qualities that Jen attributes to him in her book -- his stability, good sense and draft-horse-style unflappability -- have helped him weather any scrutiny.

Oh sure, there was some anxiety in the days before the book was released, as he wondered if 52 Fights would affect his career as a partner at the Minneapolis-based firm of Fish and Richardson.

But besides some ribbing from his colleagues and buddies in his fantasy football league ("Man, I'm glad my wife didn't write a book"), he has fared pretty well. As for career concerns, it hasn't been an issue. If anything, he believes it helps him stand out. "To some degree, lawyers tend to be viewed as a dime a dozen. Like we're all just cut from the same blue suit. And now people say: 'Oh, you're the guy the book was written about.'"

Baby noises down the hall prompt Matt to fetch Max from his crib. Max is a round-cheeked little boy, with Mom's sweet smile and Dad's light blue eyes and go-getter personality. "Everything is now, now, now!" Jen says, with good-natured resignation.

Jen's anecdote about discovering her husband's now, now, nowness goes back three years. It's 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and Matt's alarm jolts her awake. She had hoped to sleep at least until the sun came up, then go for a jog to clear her head of workweek worries. Instead, her husband has showered, shaved and dressed. He is raring to go.

"Shall we start working?" he asks his bleary-eyed wife. He hopes to get a jump on their first home-remodeling project: scraping away the garish, pink-and-purple wallpaper that dominates the main floor. Jen realizes her days of lazy Saturday mornings are over. Her spouse has many plans, and he wants to get them done.

Now, now, now.

They met in the fall of 1999, on a blind date. Jen had never been on a blind date before, and almost backed out at the last minute. But when Matt showed up, she was glad she hadn't. His charm and friendliness quickly put her at ease.

The two clicked, even if they had little in common. Matt grew up on a hobby farm near Fargo with five younger siblings, a veterinarian father and a mother who returned to North Dakota State University after her kids were grown to get a master's in counseling. Jen grew up in a duplex in Ithaca, N.Y., with a lineman father and stay-at-home mom.

Matt received his electrical engineering degree at NDSU in 1991, then earned a law degree at the University of San Diego. Jennifer was a technical writer-turned-computer programmer with a master's in creative writing from Columbia University.

They fell in love. Their wedding was June 1, 2002, a perfect summer day. Nearly 200 friends and families watched her walk down the aisle in a white satin gown with spaghetti straps and a gentle A-line skirt.

Both soon realized the differences that helped them fall in love were tearing them apart. The traits Jen once adored in her husband -- his take-charge attitude, confidence and loads of energy -- now drove her crazy. Everything became a source of conflict, from spending habits and different communication styles to in-laws and housekeeping standards. When Matt wasn't flying across the country for business, the two were bickering about their endless home renovation.

To Jen, the house itself was an issue. It represented middle-class affluence and conformity -- two conditions she'd never imagined for herself. She had once dreamed of living in a loft in lower Manhattan with a fascinatingly sullen artistic type. Instead, she was married to a Midwestern idealist whose American dream included a great career, a big family and a house in the 'burbs. Jen feared her independence and identity were melting into his.

Frustrated and lonely, she began to journal. Her musings morphed into columns, which were picked up by her hometown newspaper, The Ithaca Journal, Minnesota Bride and Lovetripper.com, a travel Web site.

Jen grew so diligent at collecting material that she would whip out a notebook in the midst of arguments. It would bring any debate, even with the lawyerly Matt, to a grinding halt. "What did you write?" he'd ask.

"Nothing."

"I know it's something, and I know it's going to be public soon, so what did I do wrong?" Matt never suspected where the notebook's contents would land. His wife may have scribbled notes now and then, but it was a long stretch to think her observations about his quirks, or their marriage, would wind up in bookstores across the country.

Yet it was Matt who encouraged his wife to take her career to the next level. Ever since they'd started dating, Jen had talked about becoming a "real writer," but had been too intimidated to carry it out. "Well, what are you doing about it?" her take-charge husband said.

And so, with Matt cheering her on, she sent an e-mail query to a number of New York literary agents. She took a deep breath and clicked on "send." Twenty minutes later, the first response arrived. Then a second, third, fourth, fifth. Jen couldn't believe it. For years, she had dreamed about a book contract with a major publishing house. Now five agents were reaching out through the anonymity of cyberspace, offering to represent her. It was crazy.

Since hitting bookstores in June, 52 Fights has struck a universal chord. Their friends say it's exactly on target. Wives reported having to wrest it away from their husbands so they could read it. Interviewers told the couple they could relate.

One chapter deals with a common complaint for new couples -- the in-laws. As mothers-in-law go, Matt's mother Marguerite was strictly a non-meddling variety, but Jen still felt insecure. When Marguerite casually suggested the type of pans Jen could buy, her doubts ran wild. Was her mother-in-law still trying to control things? Did she see Jen as incapable of taking care of her beloved first-born? In the end, Jen realized she was being overly defensive. Marguerite, for her part, showed great humor about the chapter. When Matt's parents attended the book launch in Minneapolis, Marguerite wore a T-shirt that prominently stated: "The mother-in-law, page 133."

Another chapter delves into the hot-button issue of money. Matt wanted to buy a $1,300 icemaker, which produced perfectly square, perfectly clear ice cubes. Jen, the saver of the two, was horrified. Couldn't he just use a plastic ice tray? At the same time, Jen wondered if she should allow Matt to splurge, as he worked hard for his paycheck and was typically so practical. They realized the real issue was their differing views of spending, which were shaped by their widely different backgrounds.

They never did buy the icemaker, although their debate over it became a favorite interview topic. When the couple appeared on the Current TV segment, the icemaker spat was prominently featured. A Chicago Tribune critic jumped on the example to skewer the new network as "remarkably clueless and elitist." Some viewers vented too, although for odder reasons. "What a (expletive) idiot," one blogger fumed about Matt. "You don't need to buy an icemaker; you can just buy a filter."

Matt laughs. "Well, first of all, he's wrong. But that is really beside the point. I think you can read the book on a couple of different levels. There's a superficial level: Oh, the 'problems' of wealthy, uptown people. How can they complain about any of this? But if you go deeper, it's actually that we came from very different backgrounds, so what do you do when those backgrounds come together?"

For some couples, the natural sequel to 52 Fights would be 53 Fights and One Divorce Settlement. But Matt and Jen have grown stronger. The writing and the self-examination it required proved cathartic for Jen. And the content forced husband and wife to talk through even the diciest issues. "I'd write a chapter and he'd read it and say, 'You know what? That's actually not how I see it,'" Jen says. "I think it really strengthened our marriage because you think your partner thinks the way you do and they don't. It's the first time I really understood our minds work very differently."

Jen's book deal allowed her to quit her programming job. She spends her days caring for Max, promoting 52 Fights and, in those precious chunks of time when the baby naps, churning out a sequel. The premise: What happens when baby makes three? A lot, Matt and Jen learned. The arrival of a third party, especially one with many demands on their energy and time, changes the dynamic. Newlywed arguments seem petty. Now there are new issues, new negotiations, new resolutions. And that's just the beginning. Still, one gets the feeling that Matt Samuel and Jen Patterson -- who have survived in-laws, huge personality differences and one very expensive icemaker -- will figure it out.

-- T. Swift