Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 294 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the author.
Late last year I asked readers to nominate their favourite read of 2008 as part of a competition I was running. And when Joshua Henkin saw that his novel Matrimony had been listed, he contacted me to see if I’d be interested in a review copy. It sounded like the type of book I’d enjoy, so I took him up on his very generous offer.
Matrimony tracks the lives of a young academic couple, Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn, over a 15-year-period, from their college courtship to the onset of middle-age. It’s essentially a novel about domesticity, and how easily we fall into it, but it’s also a story about friendship and how — if you’ll forgive me quoting John Lennon — life happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.
The book begins in 1986 with Julian, a rich kid from New York City, attending Graymont College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. At the end of his first fiction-writing class under the uncompromising Professor Chesterfield, he is asked to stay behind with another student, Carter Heinz. “I like you guys,” says Chesterfield. “You’re the only two students in the class with even an ounce of talent. Not that you have much of it.”
This conversation sets the course of Julian’s life, for as well as confirming his promise as a writer it introduces him to Carter, who becomes a life-long friend despite the fact the pair appear to have little in common. Julian’s wealthy background gives him “an indifference to wealth that only the wealthy could afford, a sense of entitlement, and a way of being in the world that was utterly at ease”, while Carter’s comparatively poor background gives him a burning desire to make money. “My father sits around trying to be clever instead of actually making a living,” he tells Julian. “He dreams about becoming rich. I dream about becoming rich, too, but I’m going to do something about it.”
Later Carter finds a girlfriend — in the college dining hall at breakfast — and before long he “was staying at Pilar’s most nights, sleeping there with such regularity that, upon interrogation, he was forced to admit he kept an extra pair of tennis sneakers in her dorm room, and a toothbrush, too”. Before long Julian falls in love with Montreal-born Mia, and by their senior year the four are sharing a house on campus, doing everything together and leading relatively carefree lives.
It is Mia, clever and confident, who first realises that student life can’t carry on forever.
Mia felt in a deep way that she was growing up, that she’d become an adult without realising it. […] She’d never really given marriage much thought, and more time passed the less seriously she took it, as if the fact that she was getting older, closer, presumably, to actually getting married, no longer accommodated the fantasy.
When Mia’s mother develops breast cancer, the transformation from college student to adult becomes complete. Marriage to Julian shortly follows.
The book’s section headings — Northington, Massachusetts; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Berkeley, California; Iowa City, Iowa; New York, New York; and Northington, Massachusetts — give some indication of the geographical distances the couple cover over the next decade or so. But the story also charts emotional highs and lows, career successes and career failures, health scares and friendship woes, and all the minutiae of busy lives lead under the weight of parental and spousal expectations.
It’s a brilliant, completely absorbing read, one that takes you on a journey with all-too-real characters that are so believable it’s easy to feel like you know them personally. Or at least that’s the effect this highly ambitious novel had on me: I read Matrimony in two sittings because I was desperate to follow Julian and Mia’s every footstep. To close the page meant I could not longer keep a close eye on them!
I can’t fault the effortless prose style that races along at a cracking pace without skimping on detail. And nor can I fault the dialogue, for which Henkin has an astonishing and perceptive ear.
The insights into the human heart, the little tics and quirks of married couples, our foibles and our dreams, are all presented here with uncanny realism and much compassion. Of particular interest is Henkin’s insights into the writing life, because poor Julian spends the course of the book grappling with his first novel: his struggles, his doubts, his crises of confidence all seem incredibly authentic. I can’t imagine that Henkin himself would ever had to surmount such problems, because Matrimony is clearly one of the best modern American stories I’ve read in a long, long time. I highly recommend it.