by Joshua Henkin
Published by Pantheon
304 pages, 2007
Reviewed by M.J. Rose
Tis the season of matrimony. At least that’s true when it comes to television, where I’ve been watching Tell Me You Love Me, HBO’s new sex-soaked series about marital discontent, and American Movie Classic’s Mad Men, which, despite its focus on 1950s advertising men, is ultimately a show about marital discord. In her New York Times essay “Say, Darling, Is It Frigid in Here?” Alessandra Stanley notes that not since Thirtysomething has television been so preoccupied with marriage... and miserable marriages at that.
Yet this season’s most compelling depiction of marriage isn’t a TV series but a book. Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony is a brilliant, beautifully written novel that tracks a couple from the time they meet in college until 20 years later as they approach middle-age.
There’s some sex, and some betrayal too, but Matrimony is far subtler than that, and what we’re left with at the end of this wonderful novel is a full sense of what it means to grow older with someone.
Matrimony starts in the mid-1980s at the fictional Graymont College in New England, where the book’s protagonists, Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn, meet freshman year in the college laundry room. Julian is a wasp from New York City, the son of a wealthy investment banker, and Mia is Jewish and grew up in Montreal. Their relationship goes swimmingly, but then Mia’s mother gets sick and Mia and Julian marry earlier than they anticipated.
A few years later, living in Ann Arbor, where Mia is a graduate student in psychology and Julian is trying to write a novel, the couple realizes that circumstances have forced them to grow up sooner than they would have. Reflecting on their shotgun marriage, and on their decision not to partake of the familiar wedding rituals (there was no engagement ring or wedding dress; Mia refused to walk down the aisle holding flowers), Mia wonders whether she missed out on something:
What Mia is really musing about are paths not taken. And it’s the paths, both taken and not taken, that Matrimony traces so vividly and hauntingly as the couple moves from one college town to another and, eventually, to New York.
Through this tender excavation of love, disappointment, and ultimately hope, Henkin, the author of, Swimming Across the Hudson, gives us characters so fully formed we know them as well as we know our own friends and family.
Matrimony also does something else. It chronicles a time (the novel moves from the Reagan era, with the anti-apartheid shanties on college campuses, to Clinton, and finally to Bush; the characters watch O.J. Simpson as he leads the police on his slow car chase, and years later they are witness to the horrors of 9/11).
Matrimony also gives a full sense of the challenges a couple faces as they move from their 20s to their 30s and beyond. Death, divorce, ambition (the novel is particularly good at portraying the writing life), the balancing of two-career families, tensions over money, the decision whether to have a child: it’s all on display in Henkin’s terrific novel.
So, sure, turn on your television and grab a blanket for the chilly winds that blow through them. But if you really want to know about marriage, read Matrimony by Joshua Henkin | October 2007