Friday, June 20, 2008

REVIEW: Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin

Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. Published 2007 by Pantheon. Literary Fiction.

Matrimony is a quiet, low-key novel steeped in realism and the angst of the upper-middle-class American man. The novel follows two couples (Julian and Mia; Carter and Pilar) from college to early middle age as they struggle with the ups and downs of life and make (and un-make) decisions about what's important in their lives. The protagonist is Julian Wainwright, a wealthy New Yorker who rebels against his privileged upbringing by attending a hippyish New England college and becoming a writer. He falls in love with beautiful Mia; his best friend, blue-collar scholarship boy Carter, falls for middle-class Pilar, and from there it's game on.

The novel proceeds in straight-forward fashion through college years, early marriage, crises and resolutions. The characters are very well-developed and watching them figure out who they are is fascinating. There's nothing flashy here- just the push-and-pull of everyday life, the little things we all go through. Midway through, Julian and Mia throw a dinner party; Julian does the cooking, and afterwards Mia is too tired to clean the dishes. Julian, unable to sleep with a sinkful of dirty plates, stays up late to do the washing up and thinks ruefully that it might look different to some if the genders were reversed and Mia were the one staying up late to clean. The image of Julian scrubbing away in their quiet newlywed apartment struck me as an effective illustration of the ways gender politics trickle into the quietest corners of a relationship. In other places Henkin shows the different ways men and women communicate and bond- Carter and Julian have their heart-to-hearts over (detailed) games of pick-up basketball, while Mia and her sister share feelings in the kitchen, poring through their late mother's china. Are these choices stereotyped? A little. But there's some truth in them, too.

The book has some weaknesses, too. Julian's behavior towards Mia during the crisis of their marriage struck me as a cruel overreaction. Mia is Jewish and Julian is not, but the complications of intermarriage are completely absent from their relationship. Even the cheeriest, most well-adjusted intermarried couples I've met (and am related to) have some feelings about it, and seeing as Henkin chose to introduce this element to the story I would have liked to see some discussion of it. Pilar is basically a cipher, and I wish I'd seen more of charismatic bad-boy Carter, a more interesting, complex person than the often bland Julian.

But Henkin's smooth, accomplished prose kept me reading through it all. A character-driven book concerned above all with relationships, I think there's a lot of material in Matrimony to discuss- the characters, their motivations, judgments, decisions and consequences. They go through a lot of changes, experience victories and tragedies, and in the end they come out each in a good place with much for which to be both thankful and confident. Because there is so much to talk about, I think Matrimony would be a fine choice for book clubs. (Full disclosure: he sent me my copy of Matrimony gratis in return for the review and consideration for my library's club.) I liked Matrimony. It's a good, thought-provoking book that looks inside the institution of marriage and comes out optimistic and hopeful.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the author.


LisaMM said...

This is a really good review. I liked the book too but also had a few problems with it.

Heather J. said...

Hi! I included a link to your review in mine (which is here, in case you interested).