6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to ‘You Belong Here’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoë Heller (2003)

This is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog. I read it in one sitting and described it as a “cracking read”. Essentially it’s two intertwined stories about two very different relationships: the secret and scandalous love affair between a teacher, Sheba, and her 15-year-old pupil; and the developing friendship between Sheba and her confidante, Barbara, a history teacher at the same school.

The Best Kind of People

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall (2016)

Another novel about sexual misconduct at a school, this one was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2016. The book explores the outfall on three members of a family, whose patriarch, George Woodbury, a popular science teacher, is accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip.

‘Vladímír’ by ulia May Jonas (2022)

This is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier. But the narrator has her own sexual picaddilloes and develops an obsession with  a new male colleague, Vladímír, which highlights timely issues about power and consent.

‘Stoner’ by John Williams (1965)

Another campus novel, Stoner charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later, covering his career, which becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor as time goes on, and a loveless marriage that falls apart.

‘Matrimony’ by Joshua Henkin (2008)

Marriage between a young academic couple forms the major focus of this compelling novel which covers a 15-year-period, from the pair’s 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  life happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad (2012)

Another portrait of a marriage, Everybody has Everything is about what happens when a happily married couple — a high-flying corporate lawyer and an out-of-work documentary filmmaker — have parenthood unexpectedly thrust upon them when a friend’s toddler is left in their care. The tensions come to the fore because one is ambivalent about parenthood while the other embraces it with enthusiaism.

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed (2018)

The long-lasting impact that parents can have on their children forms the hub of this brilliantly written novel, which spans more than 40 years. It tells the story of Jen and Steven who meet as teenagers, marry young and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the impact the divorce has on their three children who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student to a novel that explores the long-lasting impact of a divorce on three children well into adulthood, via stories about sex scandals on campus, academic life and marriages under stress. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Joshua Henkin, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Matrimony’ by Joshua Henkin


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.