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With all of the book blog buzz that has been generated about "Matrimony" in the past couple of months, I just had to read and review the book for myself. I was however a bit worried that it would not live up to its hype, as is often the case, but after reading the first few pages I knew I would not be disappointed.
"Matrimony" takes place over the course of twenty years, primarily following the lives of Julian and Mia, whose relationship blossoms in college and subsequently leads to matrimony. While it can be said that "Matrimony" is indeed a love story, I think it is really so much more. Relationships with family and friends are equally important elements of the storyline and shape who Julian and Mia are, as well as who they become. And as with any story that centers on relationships, themes of betrayal, greed, jealousy and death rear their ugly heads. However despite all the drama, there was never a point in the story when I felt like I was stuck in a contrived soap opera world. I did not need to be convinced of the plot's credibility because I was already picturing it all unfolding right before my very eyes.
The true test of an author's ability to depict believable characters is whether those fictional people are able to elicit genuine feeling from the reader. Regardless of whether a character inspires my compassion, admiration or even indignation, all that matters is that they are real to me. Henkin has succeeded in this respect, as Julian and Mia, along with most of the supporting characters, jump out of the pages and come alive.
What I loved most about the book is the way events from the past are so intricately weaved throughout the story and never detract from the main plot. It is the fluidity of the narrative makes "Matrimony" such an effortless read and Henkin's beautiful writing that makes it such an enjoyable one.
Matrimony's strengths are twofold. Exceptionally smooth prose makes it an effortless and enjoyable reading experience. And emotional honesty offers us a wholly believable and satifying story. We follow a young Julian and Mia through their college years and an early marriage, to career choices and changes, the loss of a parent, and lingering doubts about Julian's ability to become the writer he wants to be. Their closest friends, Carter and Pilar, share those times with them and life moves forward as they spend some years both studying and teaching in different college towns. We watch them mature, gaining new insights about each other as parents age, friends split up, illness threatens, and an old secret causes a deep wound.
The author is clearly perceptive about the intricacies of relationships and of matrimony. We may see this as the story of a young couple's marital course but it is more. For there are in fact several marriages here when we take into account both Julian and Mia's friends as well as their respective parents. While our main interest follows them, each couple's relationship is unique and working itself out in its own ways too and we are privy to all of it. This is a quiet but solid story, driven by well-developed, complex characters whose lives we are seriously interested in. It's about life, long love, and friendship, and it's one story you don't want to miss out on. Four and a half stars out of five. Highly recommended.
Josh Henkin's Julian Wainwright is the major character in what is a poignant depiction of Mia and Julian Wainwright's marriage and all that entails. All of the emotional upheaval one might expect in a marriage filled with infidelity, suspicion, and loss, is found in Julian's marriage to Mia. Julian's plans for the perfect life change as he finds he must face reality. He learns what life gives each of us, and how it changes our plans, sometimes rather quickly, but more often than not, rather steadily, determines what really happens next in our well planned existence. These plans can produce positive as well as negative results.
At the age of 13, Julian meets author John Cheever and from that point on, all Julian wants to do is write. He attends Graymont College, known for its excellent writing program, where he becomes one of four freshmen who the story follows for the next few decades. One, of course is Mia Mendelsohn from Montreal. Theirs is a story book start with instant attraction and falling in love. Also in the group is Carter Heinz, a scholarship student all the way from California, who is probably THE most talented writer in the group, and also the poorest financially. Carter tries, but often just can't control the jealousy he feels toward Julian, because of the wealth Julian is lucky to be born into. These feelings toward Julian cause Carter to almost miss an opportunity for a truly glorious friendship. Carter's girlfriend, Pilar, completes the foursome. Pilar's parents are lawyers and she wants to follow in their footsteps. The failures and successes of these two couples are chronicled so well by Henkin over the next few years.
While Julian struggles to be the writer he just knows he can be, they find out that Mia's mother is ill. Things are set in motion as decisions seem to be made for them at this point. Mia's mom has breast cancer and Mia decides she really wants to marry Julian before her mother dies. And so, having married right after graduation, Julian moves to follow Mia as she continues her education. Their travels take them from their New England college town to one in the Midwest as Mia's postgraduate work is in the field of psychotherapy. While Mia is in school, Julian teaches some courses and continues to write. Eventually, they wind up in New York. With each move, and each year of marriage, Julian and Mia find old secrets coming out and their marriage is tested to the point of destruction.
Julian goes to Berkley to watch Carter graduate from Law School. Carter, who has founded a computer software start-up company, is now worth millions. Carter's wife, and college sweetheart, have split up. So the two friends get together to talk about the good old days and Carter let's a supposedly unintentional secret slip out. At this point, the path this story will take is up for grabs as to whether Julian and Mia will be able to get over this next hurdle. Along with that, Mia finds out she carries the same breast cancer gene that her mother did and the story goes once again in another direction as priorities change.
Henkin's writing makes for a moving account set in just the right atmosphere that keeps readers involved with the story. The characters are real and the reader can relate to them, believe in them, and more importantly, care about them. What happens with the knowledge Julian learned and the battle Mia faces, is what brings this story to its stunning conclusion. MATRIMONY is an enjoyable read and beautifully written, relatable story.
Anyone besides me hate anachronisms? College is late 80s, right? what's wrong with this paragraph:
Then Mia was going to the library, too, where she looked up breast cancer in the medical encyclopedia and typed “cancer” and “breast” into the computers. There was “bilateral breast cancer” and “osseous metastatic spread” and “malignant neoplasm” and “histologic subtypes” and “suboptimally debulked disease” and “electrophoresis” and “neoadjuvant chemotherapy” and “thrombocytopenia” and “tumor cell necrosis” and “erythrocyte count” and “lymphadenopathy.” She had no idea what these terms meant, couldn’t figure out whom these articles were intended for, certainly not for people like her...
Where did she find a search engine? people were still on modems to connect to the internet.
And the description describes the story during the "height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium," This is the least political novel I have ever read about college.
Matrimony reads the way a good glass of wine goes down, quick and easy. This isn't a flash book, no bombs going off, no love-children revealed in the last chapter. It's a simple, straightforward story about two people, mostly, who grow together, then apart, then back together. Much of the novel exists in the characters' longing for the past: wishing they could go back to it, relive it, make it better. This is great, for a while, but there's a lot of it, so much so that the 'present' in the novel never seems as real as the past, as if what really mattered is always what happened before, not now. It also feels a little choppy, always jumping back to give us historical context for current-day actions when a little mystery regarding those actions would have been just fine. Overall, very well written, very easy to read, a nice escape.
Slowly the story unfolds, bringing characters such as Waspy Julian Wainwright and scholarship student Carter Heinz to life, as they begin their journey as college students. We meet them in the eighties, during the Reagan era, and follow them into the twenty-first century.
College years in Northington, Massachusetts seem typical for the era. Pranks, partying, and finding girlfriends. The two young men, who could seem totally unlike one another, become fast friends.
Meeting Mia Mendelsohn, dubbed "Mia from Montreal" in honor of her Canadian residency, could have been another fluke. They each met her, but right away she and Julian pair up. And Carter has already connected to Pilar.
Julian and Carter both seem destined to write novels, yet their lives seemingly change directions. Carter returns to California and Julian and Mia move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Julian continues working on his novel, yet finds other ways to earn money.
It is almost as though the work in progress is a metaphor for their lives, and it will be many years before the novel is finished.
What are the pressure points for Julian and Mia that almost do them in? What happens, ultimately, to the Carter and Pilar pairing, and how do these youthful connections fare in the long run? Do the friendships last in spite of the frayed edges?
Fifteen years later at a reunion, we begin to see how the defining moments that highlighted their lives are the most memorable. In Matrimony: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries), we are offered a portrait of what happens when people marry young and how love sometimes survives the passing of time.
I liked how the quiet moments in life are drawn and incorporated into the characters, almost as if they are captured in muted shades. I found Mia's thoughts about memories of childhood and her mother very poignant:
"She remembered these things, but they came back to her like cumulus clouds, as if she were descending through something she could no longer see."
Or Julian, describing what he learned about writing from his favorite professor:
"Write what you know about what you don't know," Julian said, "or what you don't know about what you know."
This story took me back to my younger years and the connections formed then and sustained for years afterwards. I like thinking about these moments that become part of who we are. I identified with the characters, even Julian and Carter, for their very human frailties. I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reminders of who we are and how we became that way. Four stars.
Wish I hadn't blown the money on this in hardcover, but I needed something to read on a business trip. Henkin's an adequate writer and all, but he only barely lets you inside his character's heads/hearts, and the overwrought place-descriptions (see the opening of part 2, Ann Arbor) cannot compensate for lack of character development (or character development so predictable and banal it might as well not have happened). Most of the dialogue is stultifying devoid of conflict, and when there is conflict, it falls flat. The characters remain wrapped up in their tiny, predictable lives, and nothing in them inspired any strong feelings in me -- not appreciation, not outrage, not envy. Just: nothing. Ho-hum. Had my plane not been delayed, I doubt I would have even finished the book.
I don't know what's with all the John Cheever comparisons I've seen in reviews of this book -- Henkin shows few of Cheever's gifts. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad, just a mediocre novelist who somehow made it onto the NYTimes 100 Best Books of the Year Award -- Scott Spencer (Endless Love, Boat Made of Paper, Men in Black) is a closer literary cousin.
This book was a huge disappointment. The characters are not particularly likable and in any case follow a pretty predictable pattern. They just don't seem to evolve very much, particularly Julian, despite the span of time in the novel. And what's with this guy anyway? His father basically supports him and yet he blows his parents off [and this isn't 60's rebellion]. He dumps his wife because of a blow to his ego and then decides he wants her back. Why she takes back this loser is beyond me. Many of the dialogue sequences are way too long because the author is trying to cram information into them. And the frequent use of back story in the past perfect tense is one of the first things I thought writing classes told you NOT to do. And what exactly is the central conflict in the book? Julian with himself, with Mia, with Carter, with his parents, with his novel writing? You just don't really care. The brief references to politics and current events is cliched. And to have the ending presented neatly tied up in a pretty package is, I would agree with one reviewer, "cheesy". A waste of time.
Joshua Henkin's done it. A well-written book without any gimmacks or tricks. You follow these characters through their lives and feel for each one. He deftly writes from a woman's point of view, too. I look forward to more of his work.