Book talk: “Matrimony,” by Joshua Henkin

Disclaimer: I received a personally autographed copy of the hardcover edition of this book for review directly from the author. He’d like to send you a copy of the newly-released paperback edition, too – stay tuned for more info!

Matrimony: A Novel by Joshua Henkin
Matrimony: A Novel
Joshua Henkin (author’s website)
Pantheon, 2007 (hardcover) (ISBN 0375424350 / 9780375424359)
Fiction, 304 pages

First Sentence:
“Out! Out! Out!” The first words Julian Wainwright ever spoke, according to his father, Richard Wainwright III, graduate of Yale and grand lubricator of the economic machinery, and Julian’s mother, Constance Wainwright, Wellesley graduate and descendant of a long line of Pennsylvania Republicans.

Book Description (summarized): The son of a Yale-educated investment banker, Julian Wainwright grew up in a huge apartment on Sutton Place, high above the East River, and attended a tony Manhattan private school. Yet, more than anything, he wants to get out–out from under his parents’ influence, off to Graymont College in western Massachusetts, where he hopes to become a writer.

When he arrives, in the fall of 1986, Julian meets Carter Heinz, a scholarship student from California with whom he develops a strong but ambivalent friendship. Carter’s mother, desperate to save money for his college education, used to buy him reversible clothing, figuring she was getting two items for the price of one. Now, spending time with Julian, Carter seethes with resentment. He swears he will grow up to be wealthy–wealthier, even, than Julian himself.

Then, one day, flipping through the college facebook, Julian and Carter see a photo of Mia Mendelsohn. Mia from Montreal, they call her. Beautiful, Jewish, the daughter of a physics professor at McGill, Mia is–Julian and Carter agree–dreamy, urbane, stylish, refined.

But Julian gets to Mia first, meeting her by chance in the college laundry room. Soon they begin a love affair that–spurred on by family tragedy–will carry them to graduation and beyond, taking them through several college towns, over the next ten years. Then Carter reappears, working for an Internet company in California, and he throws everyone’s life into turmoil: Julian’s, Mia’s, his own.

Comments: When I first started seeing reviews of Matrimony last fall, I was intrigued but ambivalent. My personal history has made me sometimes reluctant to tackle novels about troubled marriages, and this one looked like it might hit just a bit too close to home. Julian and Mia married before they were out of college (check), moved away for one spouse to attend grad school while the other worked (check), and separated as a result of one partner’s infidelity (check) – these were some of my own plot points, and I feared the story might dig too far under my skin. But when the author contacted me to offer a review copy, I didn’t want to wimp out, so I accepted the book.

I didn’t have much too fear from Matrimony, as it turned out. I’ve got some distance from that part of my own story now, and despite some similar plot points, Julian and Mia’s story is theirs, not mine.

We’re not necessarily the same people at thirty-five that we are at eighteen, and for couples who meet and marry young, this can be an unanticipated challenge. Some work their way through it, and some find themselves too far apart to bridge the gap. I think that Henkin’s novel portrayed the growth and change of both the individuals, and the relationship, quite well.

It struck me that some of the dramatic personal events that the characters went through were actually written without a lot of “drama,” and I actually think it works. I would describe the writing itself as “reserved;” I think it’s true to the WASP reserve of a character like Julian, which tends to be associated with not much discussion of feelings, and it doesn’t manipulate the reader’s feelings either.

But despite my earlier mention of plot points, this is a character-driven novel, and it’s mostly balanced between Julian and Mia, with very smooth transitions in perspective. However, having said that, I found Mia to be the more interesting, better-developed character, although I found all of the characters to be real and sympathetic. I can’t say I’m anxious for a sequel, but I would be interested in re-visiting these characters and their lives at some point in the future.

The book is a fairly quick read and an engaging story, and one that I think will stick with me for awhile. I appreciate Joshua Henkin’s offering me the opportunity to read and review it.

Rating: 3.75/5

Aside: In my – limited, I admit – experience of dealing with authors directly, I have to say I’ve been very impressed with this author’s level of interaction with readers and bloggers. Joshua Henkin has actively made contact with book bloggers to promote Matrimony; the list below is a sampling of the bloggers to whom he has personally offered review copies of the novel. He has also engaged with book clubs, offering to participate in book discussion via telephone – or in person, if your club is within driving distance (NY/NJ/Philadelphia) – and providing a reading group guide. Henkin has also contributed guest posts for the online book club Planet Books and about book clubs at Books on the Brain. I’m sure this has not only helped his current novel, but it’s also building goodwill and a potential reader base for whatever he writes next. This is an author who really gets it.

Other bloggers’ reviews of this book:
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
Blue Archipelago
In Spring It Is the Dawn
Age 30 – A Year of Books
My Own Little Reading Room
My Friend Amy
The Boston Bibliophile
Everyday I Write the Book Blog
Books on the Brain
Bookfoolery and Babble
Bloody Hell, It’s a Book Barrage
Booking Mama
Literary License
She Is Too Fond of Books
The Inside Cover
The Book Lady’s Blog
Book Club Classics
B&b ex libris
The Literate Housewife
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Savvy Verse & Wit 
The Bluestocking Society 
Maw Books Blog
If you have reviewed this book (and you’re not already linked in this post), please leave the link in a comment or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to include it!

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  1. I agree with your “Aside” note completely. This author is working hard to connect with the book blogging world. AND he is open to (constructive) negative reviews. I was leery about posting my thoughts since I didn’t enjoy this book that much but the author encouraged me to be honest so I was. And he even passed along my review to other bloggers – now THAT is impressive.

    (By the way, I’m adding a link to your review from mine, ok?)

  2. Heather – Link away :-)! As you can see, your review is already linked here.

    I didn’t love the book, but I liked it fine. However, I couldn’t post about it without mentioning the author’s involvement with getting it out there.

  3. I can see why you had second thoughts. I probably would have wimped out. But it was neat how the author is going out of his way to contact bloggers. Not a bad idea.

  4. Mike – I’m glad I didn’t wimp out. I just have to remind myself that not everything’s about me, and go from there :-).

    Buzz among bloggers is becoming a marketing force to be taken seriously, and like I said, this author really gets that, and it is pretty cool.

  5. A friend of mine loaned me this book months ago and it has been sitting on my nightstand unread. Perhaps, I’ll pick it up and start reading it tonight.

  6. Rebecca – Josh Henkin was kind enough to provide me with a list of more blogs that had reviewed Matrimony, and that’s how I got your link. Thanks for coming over!

  7. Great review. I also agree that the author has done a wonderful job connecting with bloggers. And I too enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t written with a lot of drama. That made it more like real life which isn’t full of drama 24/7 either.

  8. SITFOB – I had noticed that as well; too bad my book group is rather moribund these days. But I think it’s really worked for him – and for us book-bloggy folks too!