Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin

I was fortunate to win a copy of Matrimony last fall in a giveaway. The premise was appealing to me, that of the story of Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn, coming of age in 1986 as students at Graymont College. Over the course of the novel, Matrimony becomes the story of many of us in Julian and Mia's generation - the story of finding our way and making choices, of losing loved ones to death or other circumstances, of discovering what really matters.

It's the story of a marriage, but as Joshua Henkin explained in one interview I read, it is really about several marriages. I agree; while the focus is on Julian and Mia, Matrimony is also about how the relationships of their parents and close friends are also woven into the dynamics of their marriage.

This, then, is an intriguing premise, one that initially - like the heady feeling of new love - attracts the reader. Henkin is at his best early in the novel when capturing Julian and Mia's relationship during their college years, and he nails collegiate life as it was in the '80s and '90s. That nostalgia is what I liked best about the book, with passages such as this:

"It made him nostalgic for a time when everyone was just dropping by, the cheeseburgers and onion rings eaten on dorm room floors, the hastily organized surprise parties, the years when time unfurled illusorily before them, when there was nothing to do but celebrate one another."

What happens afterward, then, in the years when time doesn't furl illusorily, when it plods on through the monotony of the every day; when we discover the flaws in people, their baggage from the past (and from our parents' pasts); when we learn about the mistakes made along the way? Julian and Mia aren't immune to the major issues that lurk and resurface in longtime relationships - and in fact, such an issue happens to them and forms the basis of Matrimony. And that's where I seem to part company with other readers of the novel because how this is handled affects my belief in the story as a reader and my identification with and interest in the characters. Without giving much away here, I had some trouble grasping Julian's reaction to discovering something about Mia's past. And I had even more trouble with the resolution of the issue - if you can call it a resolution, because there didn't seem to be one.

Matrimony has been called a "quiet" novel - and indeed, it is. There was no discussion between the couple about a major, life-altering situation. I also had some trouble with this given the fact that Mia's chosen profession is of a therapist, yet the issue - which sure as hell would have necessitated counseling for many a couple - is not discussed, is not mentioned, is seemingly brushed off as easily as the dog hair from their pet. Something - and I'm not sure what it is - is missing in the novel with the treatment given to this situation. Perhaps Henkin is trying to convey that this is how this particular marriage - and others - function, that crap happens and we deal with it in our own ways and we live with it. Perhaps.

On a personal note: I had a difficult time writing this review because I've emailed with Joshua Henkin, who really seems to be a great guy - and book bloggers know how supportive he has been of our little community here as well as in-real-life book clubs (often traveling 2 hours each way to join groups in person for their discussions of Matrimony). So, I feel bad for not liking this as much I as really wanted and hoped to. I didn't dislike Matrimony (in fact, there are parts that are very good and fItalicunny), it's just that the disconnect I felt to Julian and Mia really affected my experience with the book. Other characters, such as Carter Heinz and Professor Chesterfield, for example - were ones I could relate to more. (Everyone knows a Carter, and I could swear that I had at least one class with Professor Chesterfield.) That's what I mean about parts of Matrimony being well-done; Henkin has the ability to give the reader strong, identifiable characters within an intriguing storyline, but Matrimony doesn't quite get there for me.

I know that I am very much in the minority with my thoughts on this one, and that's one of the reasons I include links to other reviews from other book bloggers. There are a lot of different takes on this book which provide for healthy discourse in forums such as these. I do encourage taking the time to read others' thoughts and giving Matrimony a chance. Rating: 3.5 stars.

Other reviews (if I missed yours, my apologies ... just leave the link in the comments and I will update this post with your review too).

Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books

Book Club Classics


Books on the Brain

Caribous Mom

Everyday I Write the Book Blog

Maw Books Blog - Matrimony book review

Maw Books Blog - Interview with Joshua Henkin

My Friend Amy
New York Times Book Review


Bloggin' bout Books and a guest post by Joshua Henkin here.

The 3R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

The Hidden Side of a Leaf (miss you still, Dewey .... )

The Literate Housewife


Karen H. said...

Very interesting perspective you have there. I think I agree with you. It has been months since I read this book and I still can't say if my feelings about it are that I cannot relate a great deal to the main character. Good post!

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

Thanks, Karen. I hope that didn't come across as too harsh. I just felt disconnected to the characters and the non-resolution of the issue in question just seemed to exacerbate it. I don't know ... maybe it's me ...