I’m sure you’ll probably have seen other giveaways of Joshua Henkin’s book, Matrimony, on the blogosphere. Well, if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, here at the Reading Room I am fortunate enough to have a copy to send to a lucky reader. Just leave a comment if you’d like to be put in for the draw, which I’ll do on New Year’s Eve. Winning a book is a good way to start 2009, right?
Matrimony is the story of Julian and Mia, a couple who meet at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Julian comes from a privileged background, the only son of wealthy parents but quietly, unostentatiously bothered by his lack of relationship to his father. His ambition is to make it as a writer, and it’s on his creative writing course that he meets and makes friends with his direct opposite, Carter Heinz. Carter comes not from a poor family, but an ordinary, respectable Californian family. This legacy gives him a loud mouth, a chip on his shoulder and a compulsion to be subversive. Against all the odds, but drawn together by their creative talent, Julian and Carter become firm friends, and the narrative will detail the very different, but interlinked, paths of their destinies. In the first instance, the hand fate deals them with regard to relationships: Carter meets Pilar, a sassy, ambitious law student, and Julian meets Mia, a Jewish Canadian who is hardworking, kind, ordinary, intelligent.
For both Julian and Mia, this is their first serious relationship, and inevitably it becomes their emotional training ground where they make their developmental errors. Mia’s mother falls ill with terminal breast cancer and the trauma of the experience propels them into marriage. This event will have all kinds of repercussions across their story, some to do with Mia’s concerns for her own health, and others that will remain hidden until they explode unexpectedly much later in the narrative. The couple moves to Michigan, so that Mia can attend graduate school and train to be a psychotherapist. Julian, however, is left somewhat adrift by this shift, supposedly working on his novel and keeping house while earning some pin money teaching composition, a job he hates because he fears he might be good at it. Carter and Pilar, meanwhile, marry, and Carter becomes rich overnight through working in a start-up. But his relationship with Julian, much like Mia’s with her sister, Olivia, or Julian’s with his father, is an inextricable tangle of love, admiration, jealousy and aggression. There are all kinds of implicit questions circulating in this ostensibly simple narrative, not least of which is why we always treat the worst the people we love the best. Carter remains loyal to Julian across the expanse of the novel, but it doesn’t stop him from dealing the most painful blow he’ll receive.
Matrimony is a story that is much concerned with realism. In all of Julian’s writing classes, and in the novel’s self-reflexive preoccupation with literary endeavour, it’s the question of how best to represent life in orthodox narrative terms that dominates. How to use the classic structures, but still come up with something new, something moving. Reading this novel, I felt that Henkin is a direct descendent of Flaubert, whose unflashy narratives were concerned with the sort of people who, in other novels, would be classified as secondary characters. And Henkin and Flaubert both are fascinated by what is truly everyday, which in no way limits the complexity, the subtlety and the paradoxical nature of much that happens. To all intents and purposes, this novel could have been subtitled A Sentimental Education, as Julian and Mia struggle with quotidian forms of failure, fear, despair and confusion. They must both come to terms with their personal demons: Julian’s promise as a writer, Mia’s anxieties about her long term health, and understand who they are in relation to their families. But whereas Flaubert seemed to have very little faith in the marital state, Henkin’s novel remains resolutely optimistic about it. Although the novel is titled Matrimony, it’s curiously easy to lose sight of marriage as the guiding principle of the story, when there is so much else going on.
If we look closely at the central marriage though, what is particularly intriguing to me is the way that the triumphs and tragedies of the relationship almost always come into being because of factors beyond the relationship itself. Julian and Mia are finely drawn, highly credible protagonists, but the drama isn’t so very much about the way they interact; instead it’s about what they can accommodate in their love for one another in terms of the brick bats life throws at them. It seems this year that I’ve read a couple of novels by men that take on the domesticity and emotional intelligence that is usually the province of the woman novelist, and it’s been most intriguing to see how differently they tell the tale. A lot of the novels about marriage written by women focus on the heroics required to keep a relationship on course. In Matrimony, the bond between Julian and Mia is unbreakable; the question is simply whether the relationship has the elasticity to incorporate the vagaries of life. Funnily enough, it reminded me of the insight I once had about men in relationships, which is that the central question for men is not about love, but about what they can do. Most women think anything is possible if there’s enough love; most men will consider what they are capable of giving, capable of being, and draw the lines that way. I’m sure there are many exceptions, but the difference in perspective has often struck me.
In anyone’s reckoning, though, male or female, this is a beautifully written book, well crafted, wholly compelling and highly accessible. There will be someone in it you recognize, or some situation that speaks to your own experience, and for that reason I think it’s a really good book for a book club. If for no other reason, read it for the fantastic portrait of the struggling writer, which I thought was particularly well done. And if you’d like to be included in the draw for a free copy, just leave a note to that effect in the comments. If you’d like to know a bit more about the book, do visit Joshua Henkin’s website and read the reviews from the New York Times (who designated this a ‘notable book’), Washington Post, and many more.