In his second novel, MATRIMONY, Joshua Henkin movingly explores marriage, friendship and the many ways we love and hurt each other, while charting the course of two married couples’ lives through two decades.
Despite what you might expect from the title, marriage is not always front and center here. MATRIMONY also explores the relationship between mothers and daughters, and how that relationship influences every aspect of a daughter’s choices. It is also a fresh window into the writing life.
MATRIMONY spans 19 years, from 1986, as Julian Wainwright begins college at a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, to 2005, when he attends a class reunion. Wealthy and privileged, Julian has always known he is going to be a writer, and the first third of the novel is devoted to Julian navigating writing classes, developing a strong friendship with fellow writer Carter Heinz, the implications of white collar and blue collar in America, and Julian’s romance with fellow student Mia Mendelsohn. These early pages are among the best in the book, especially the developing relationship between Mia and Julian.
Key to the story is the relationship of Mia to her mother, who married and left her graduate work in classics for love and never returned to her vocation. “Mia had sworn she would never be like her mother, would never abandon the city she loved and relinquish her career for her husband’s.” When Mia’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer in the first portion of the story, it changes Mia’s and Julian’s lives in ways they both can’t imagine.
One of the most poignant scenes in the book comes as Mia helps her mother shower after she recuperates from a mastectomy. Her mother extracts a promise --- that Mia will take care of her younger sister, Olivia. “What about me?” Mia wanted to say. “Who’s going to take care of me?” So much turns on her mother’s illness: Julian and Mia’s hasty marriage, Mia’s relationship with her sister, her later preoccupation with her own health and having children. Later in the novel, we discover other hidden events that were precipitated by her mother’s illness that will drive Julian and Mia apart. But will they be permanently estranged? You’re not sure until the last quarter of the book.
Henkin pens some strong descriptions: babies in the obstetrics ward “lay like takeout orders beneath the warm lights” and Julian and Mia wander around the same rooms “moving mindlessly about the house like rodents trundling across a cage.” Of Julian’s own experiences with fiction, Henkin writes, “He had nothing against muscular prose; it was the flexing of those muscles that he objected to.” That said, Henkin occasionally does some flexing of his own throughout these pages. Writers will appreciate the plethora of insights about the writing life in MATRIMONY. At commencement, Julian’s professor tells him, “I expect great things from you, Wainwright,” and we read that “Julian already felt, moments after graduating from college, that he was letting people down.” Julian also promises himself that he’ll publish a novel by the time he turns 25 but acknowledges, “It was a mystery, he suspected, what distinguished those who made it from those who didn’t, and he feared he was missing that essential something.”
In a thoughtful scene about art and commerce, Julian’s father tells him he should write something like THE CRUCIBLE --- “if he was going to be a writer he might as well make some money at it.” Julian also believes that a writer should do manual labor as well as write, but he confesses to himself that he doesn’t have much experience with manual labor and isn’t very good at it, anyway. As he begins teaching classes and his writing goes nowhere, Julian consoles himself with the adage that the bad days are investments in the good ones. One wonders about Henkin’s own experiences with the writing life from passages such as these.
Meanwhile, in California, Julian’s best friend, the talented Carter, seems to seek success in every avenue except where his genius lies: in writing. “Nothing’s what you imagine,” Carter says. “…I think happiness is beside the point.” Betrayal, forgiveness, fear and hope help carry the last portion of the novel.
In several places, readers who loved Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY will find echoes of some of the same relational and vocational themes. It’s been a decade since Henkin’s first novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, and although it is refreshing to find an author who isn’t cranking out a book every year, readers of MATRIMONY will hope to hear again from Henkin before another 10 years pass.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on January 12, 2011