By Joshua Henkin
Pantheon Books, 304 pages, $23.95.
Not a great deal actually happens in “Matrimony,” the new novel by Joshua Henkin. Julian Wainwright, a WASP from Manhattan, meets Mia Mendelsohn, a Jewish girl from Montreal, at Graymont College, a fictional liberal-arts school. The narrative follows the couple from their awkward, charming undergraduate romance through their marriage, a separation and finally their decision to reunite, live in New York and start a family.
In this, his second novel, Henkin, who teaches writing at both Sarah Lawrence and Brooklyn College, has deliberately steered away from dramatic effects and literary pyrotechnics. This is a quiet book in which few voices are raised, even at moments where the reader would expect intensity of feeling. Julian, an aspiring novelist, and Mia, a graduate student in psychology, navigate through life’s difficulties as well as they know how. They cope with the hands that they are dealt — Julian’s aloof investment-banker father, Mia’s mother’s death from breast cancer — mostly by hesitantly talking things through. In a key scene in which Mia reluctantly confesses to Julian an earlier infidelity, they simply talk. No dramatics here: In fact, Henkin writes, “There was so much more to say, but he had no idea what to tell her, and it seemed as likely that they’d spend the whole day locked in their bedroom in silence.”
But in his quiet way, Henkin builds his characters slowly and incrementally, letting them speak for themselves and permitting them to develop over the course of nearly two decades of life. Julian and Mia become real people whom the reader begins to know well as they grow naturally from a college-dorm infatuation to a certain mid-30s maturity. In a way, it’s the book’s quiet that makes it audacious.
Henkin is writing a novel that is at least in part about how to write a novel, and Julian, plagued by writer’s block, seems, to an extent, a stand-in for the author. In crafting his novel, Henkin is implicitly showing us the difficult choices Julian has had to make as a writer. It is not an easy task to successfully capture, as Henkin does, many daily specifics of clothing, popular tunes, furnishings and the like without boring the reader with a catalog of detail. Perhaps that was the issue behind Julian’s writer’s block and possibly behind Henkin’s. After all, it’s been a decade since Henkin’s first novel. In any case, Henkin pulls it off credibly.
A particularly believable point involves Mia’s reason for being unfaithful to Julian. Recalling her infidelity later in her life, she reflects that her mother was dying of breast cancer at the time. She had just found out that her lover’s mother also had been suffering from breast cancer, but she had recovered. Mia thinks, “That night, when [her lover] wanted to have sex with her, she thought maybe if she slept with him his luck would rub off. Failing that, she thought he would talk to her. But he didn’t talk to her.”
Although the book centers on a Jew-gentile intermarriage, Henkin steers clear of this issue. This is not a tract for or against mixed marriage, a paean to the American melting pot or a warning against assimilation. Although Mia’s Jewishness and Julian’s WASPiness are givens, neither character expresses a strong religious or cultural identity, and their difficulties and successes are entirely those of this particular couple and have nothing immediately to do with their ethnic backgrounds. The two simply met in college, fell in love and took life from there. Mia and Julian do not flee from their backgrounds, of course. But given the prevalence of intermarriage today, this is true to life. In the 1930s, or even the ’60s, the intermarriage would have been a main theme. Today, it is simply a given, a fact of life.
Henkin nicely avoids clichéd renderings of the cohesive Jewish family and of the demanding, high-maintenance Jewish woman. Mia is neither. And yet, Henkin does provide her with a distinctly Jewish past: For several years as a teenager, she insisted that her family members adopt Orthodox observances, and they kept a strictly kosher home out of consideration for her. She says Kaddish for her mother at least once, and she lights a yahrzeit candle for her. In the end, however, those details don’t seem well integrated with the character of Mia that we have come to know. The reader is left wondering why they were included. But that’s just one small nit to pick with what is overall an enchanting book.
Jonathan Groner is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.