Matrimony is the second novel by author Joshua Henkin, who has also published Swimming Across the Hudson (1997) and several short stories. I found Matrimony such a pleasant and “cozy” read that I’m planning to look up his other work.
Let’s start with the synopsis from inside the dust jacket, which I find to be an accurate picture of the novel, without any spoilers:
From the moment he was born, Julian Wainwright has lived a life of Waspy privilege. The son of a Yale-educated investment banker, he grew up in a huge apartment on Sutton Place, high above the East River, and attended a tony Manhattan private school. Yet, more than anything, he wants to get out-out from under his parents’ influence, off to Graymont College, in western Massachusetts, where he hopes to become a writer.
When he arrives, in the fall of 1986, Julian meets Carter Heinz, a scholarship student from California with whom he develops a strong but ambivalent friendship. Carter’s mother, desperate to save money for his college education, used to buy him reversible clothing, figuring she was getting two items for the price of one. Now, spending time with Julian, Carter seethes with resentment. He swears he will grow up to be wealthy-wealthier, even, than Julian himself.
Then, one day, flipping through the college facebook, Julian and Carter see a photo of Mia Mendelsohn. Mia from Montreal, they call her. Beautiful, Jewish, the daughter of a physics professor at McGill, Mia is-Julian and Carter agree-dreamy, urbane, stylish, refined.
But Julian gets to Mia first, meeting her by chance in the college laundry room. Soon they begin a love affair that-spurred on by family tragedy-will carry them to graduation and beyond, taking them through several college towns, over the next ten years. Then Carter reappears, working for an Internet company in California, and he throws everyone’s life into turmoil: Julian’s, Mia’s, his own.
Starting at the height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium, Matrimony is about love and friendship, about money and ambition, desire and tensions of faith. It asks what happens to a marriage when it is confronted by betrayal and the specter of mortality. What happens when people marry younger than they’d expected? Can love endure the passing of time?
In its emotional honesty, its luminous prose, its generosity and wry wit, Matrimony is a beautifully detailed portrait of what it means to share a life with someone-to do it when you’re young, and to try to do it afresh on the brink of middle age.
I found Matrimony to be a true “slice of life” with so many of the issues being near-universal experiences: emergence of ourselves in adulthood and the subsequent changes in our relationships, illness/death of parent, decisions and conflicts around career/education path of significant other, infidelity of friend or colleague, religious differences and how they affect our responses to others, friendships based on mutual convenience versus those that are deep-seated, and finally, the maturity of long-term love.
We meet Julian on the cusp of adulthood as he enters college at an alternative liberal arts school. Henkin is very effective in the way he spools out his novel, easing us forward through the next twenty years as he also dips into the past to fill in details using narrative flashback scenes. Details such as the Peer Contraceptive Counseling squad during freshman orientation and the “well-intentioned gesture [of securing] for him for his sixteenth birthday an inscribed copy of Atlas Shrugged” are believable aspects of Julian’s experience which lend additional authenticity to the writing.
Consider this look into Mia’s mind, as she and her sister, Olivia, contemplate their mother’s illness; it certainly resonated with me:
She just wanted them to admit how frightened they were, but it seemed they weren’t able to. And maybe she wasn’t, either. Last night, she’d stood silently with Olivia in the kitchen, and then she blurted out, “I love you,” and Olivia blurted it back. A discomfort settled between them, a shame almost. What freighted words those were, reserved for so few people sometimes it seemed they were never to be used at all. She recalled being a child, four, five, six when she said those words to her teachers and classmates, when it seemed there wasn’t anybody she didn’t love. Then a hardening set in, a calcifying of the heart, and you didn’t love anyone any longer, or at least you didn’t say you did, that now she couldn’t remember the last time she’d said those words to anyone besides Julian, when there were other people she loved, her family certainly.
Henkin is so focused on Julian as the central character that in the three pages of narrative and dialogue dedicated to their first day as Freshman roommates, the roommate remains nameless. Henkin uses this technique again in the epilogue; a new character is introduced, but several paragraphs pass before the character is named. This is an extremely effective way of drawing the reader in towards Julian and Mia, and serves as neat “bookends” to the novel.
I am so pleased by the number of authors who have “official” websites. Yes, they’re part of the marketing machine, but they really do offer resources that are welcomed by an interested reader. At Henkin’s website you can read more about the author and his work, and check listings for his author events. Henkin loves book groups! In addition to offering a downloadable reading group guide, he is willing to meet with book groups via speaker-phone (perhaps in person, if in the tri-state area), and is running a contest featuring copies of Matrimony and a Junior’s Cheesecake from Brooklyn! Because of the universality of so many of the themes in this novel, it is a good choice for book discussion groups; the lack of any major controversy/politics might make it especially appealing to book group “virgins”.