MATRIMONY by Joshua Henkin

Today is the third EDIWTB online book club. This time, the book is Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please leave a comment below. Also, Joshua Henkin will be answering questions from EDIWTB readers in a few weeks. So feel free to include a question for him in your comment, or email it to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com.

Henkin Matrimony is the story of Julian and Mia, a couple who meet as college students at a small New England liberal arts school and fall in love. They marry while they are still in college – a rushed wedding because Mia's mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – and the book basically tracks the next twenty years of their lives. Their relationship experiences a few ups and one serious down, which Henkin faithfully chronicles with an assured and gentle touch. Matrimony also explores Julian's relationship with his best friend from college, Carter Heinz, which is sorely tested about ten years after graduation; the breakup of Julian's parents; Mia's grief over her mother's death; and Julian's writing career.

I'll start with the good. There are some lovely vignettes throughout the book, scenes which Henkin paints with careful detail that beautifully convey what his characters are experiencing. In this way, the book was almost poetic. Henkin is adept at using small gestures and few words to turn an otherwise small scene into a memorable moment for the reader. There are several of these moments that stick out in my mind when I think back on the book: Justin and Mia's dinner party; Carter and Justin's game of basketball after Carter's law school graduation; Justin's visit to his father's office late in the novel.

Unfortunately, Matrimony left me a bit unsatisfied. These vignettes are beautiful, but ultimately, the book felt almost skeletal to me. There were long gaps between plot points which were left unexamined. There were discussions between the characters – major discussions, such as confrontations over infidelity or explorations of sibling relationships – that seemed devoid of emotion, prematurely cut off. I kept wanting these characters to feel more, to express more, to explore more. It didn't seem realistic to me that a couple would reunite after a 18-month separation, for example, with such a non-examination of why they wanted to be back together, without a resolution of their issues.

Perhaps I am just one of those readers who enjoys a lot of plot detail, expression of emotion, and examination of motive. Henkin's style is clearly more spare, more suggestive, less literal.

There are also some areas that I feel Henkin left underdeveloped, such as the role of religion in Justin and Mia's lives and marriage (the fact that they are in a mixed faith marriage hardly even comes up), Mia's imperfect relationship with her sister, or why Carter and his longterm partner split up. Maybe Henkin's message is that life is messy and doesn't necessarily get resolved. We get by, from point to point, and do the best we can with the relationships we have and the family we're born into. Perhaps his lack of deep emotional analysis and, ultimately, of conflict resolution, is his own homage to matrimony – an imperfect yet enduring institution that, out of necessity, is impervious to methodical analysis and deconstruction.

I enjoyed Matrimony, I didn't love it. But I know there are readers out there who did. I'd love to hear from those of you who read the book – please add your voice below.

24 Comments

  • May 22, 2008 - 2:01 am | Permalink

    I’m commenting now since I’ll be swamped all day. I really liked the book, kept me interested all the way through and wanting to keep going back to it whenver I could (although not quite a stay up all night reading book). I have to admit I loved the warm and fuzzy ending, but really the parts that kept me going were the details and scenes as you mentioned, especially the stuff between Carter and Justin and of course Mia and Justin, and her parents. It was interesting you brought up religion – as my own reln is mixed, but since neither of us are religious it never comes up, so I didn’t see that as lacking or unrealistic. I thought he was a fool to leave, so was not surprised that he came back and even if I could not relate so much to their academic and poor/rich lifestyle, it did seem very realistic to me, while keeping things positive, which are just the kind of books I love reading these day.

  • Marjolein
    May 22, 2008 - 5:07 am | Permalink

    I am alsmost finished reading the book and my opinion is that its a very good book about relationships, told in a very warm way. But also i think there were some points and details that didn’t add somthing to the story.

  • TLB
    May 22, 2008 - 7:37 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately I was underwhelmed by this book. It almost felt like a rough draft of a novel. I felt that the prose was flat, the plot lacked momentum, and the characters were not terribly complex. I was yearning for some reflection, some evidence of an interior life for these people. For example, what was Mia feeling, really, when Julian left? What a mix of guilt, anger, sadness she must have felt- it would have more satisfying to get inside her head.
    I do agree that there were some “poetic” moments as you describe, Gayle. I especially remember the scene of Mia walking through Manhattan toward the end. Also Henkin nicely captured the feverish frenzy of college romance after Mia and Julian first met.
    It was a mixed bag but I would not recommend it.

  • Amy
    May 22, 2008 - 7:50 am | Permalink

    This book left me wanting for so much more. It felt like the characters were never developed enough for me, so I never quite understood why things happened as they did. That being said, on pgs 198/199, Henkin beautifully portrayed Julian mother. That felt developed and real. I did like the book, but not a love affair.

  • May 22, 2008 - 8:18 am | Permalink

    My book club read this book last month and we had very mixed reviews of this book. A few of us actually liked the book very much; and after our discussion (which included a live visit by Mr. Henkin!), I came to appreciate the book even more. I’m hoping that some of you who weren’t thrilled with the book will post a few questions for Mr. Henkin because I think you will understand his motivations a little better after he answers them. It seemed to me that there were very good reasons for why he did and didn’t do certain things with this novel.
    One of the reasons that I liked this book so much was that I felt I really got to know Julian and Mia. The characters and their actions seemed very real to me, and there were elements of them that reminded me of people I’ve encountered in my life. What really made this book so special to me was that the characters were so memorable – they stayed in my thoughts even after I finished reading. I always judge movies and books by how long they stick around in my mind; and by those standards, this was a very, very good book. I wanted to know more – did Julian and Mia stay married, did they have more children, did Mia opt for the surgery, did Mia develop cancer, etc. Did anyone else feel like they missed the characters after finishing the book?
    I’ve also been thinking a lot about the character of Carter. I just never felt that I understood him. I’m not sure it was important to the story to know him well, but I thought he was such a deep, complex character. While the actions of Julian and Mia didn’t really surprise me, I was continually kept guessing about Carter’s actions and his motivations behind them. Did anyone feel the same way about Carter? I’d love to hear some more thoughts on this.
    I think Mr. Henkin is an amazing writer! The scenes in the book where he showed Mia’s grief over her mother’s illness and eventual death were just beautifully written. In my opinion, he captured those feelings perfectly – I could almost feel the pain she was experiencing. I also thought he did a wonderful job of telling the story while having the characters flash back to give the reader more details. I would think that would be very hard to pull off as a writer.
    Gayle, thanks so much for organizing this! I look forward to your next book discussion!
    Here are the links to my MATRIMONY review and synopsis of my book club meeting with Mr. Henkin:
    http://bookingmama.blogspot.com/2008/05/review-matrimony.html
    http://bookingmama.blogspot.com/2008/05/may-book-club-meeting-with-joshua.html

  • May 22, 2008 - 10:45 am | Permalink

    Hi,
    I have some comments and then a question for the author.
    I feel that this story was not about one relationship, but that it was about many different relationships and how each affected the other in some small, yet significant way.
    Carter and Julian’s relationship reminded me a lot of A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. There was that sense of “brotherhood” between the two of them which made what Carter did all the more hurtful, but not shocking. I felt that Henkin did a good job of balancing the conflict between these two characters.
    However, with Julian and Mia, I felt as if something needed to be finished. I felt as if not enough was said between these two characters. There was conflict, but it was mostly internalized so as a reader looking in, it was slightly unsatisfying even when they got back together and continued on with their lives.
    Overall, I think the story is much more complex than what it first appears to be. There is much to think about with this one.
    Now for my question for Mr. Henkin:
    After Mia’s lump ends up being benign, I was surprised to read the part about BRCA1 and BRCA2. I was wondering if you knew someone personally, that had positive markers for those genes and if not, why you chose to include that dialog. After finishing the book, I felt that maybe it was used as away to bring Olivia and Mia closer together, but I wasn’t sure and it left me wondering.
    Thanks,
    Ti

  • Nancy West
    May 22, 2008 - 11:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t know TLB, but I feel that his/her words were spot on: “I was underwhelmed…the prose was flat, the plot lacked momentum, and the characters were not terribly complex.” I couldn’t say it any better. But what this book DID do for me was inspire a lot of thinking about how there is an exquisitely fine line between realism-that-delights and realism-that-bores. This novel disappointed me because it was TOO realistic — it was boring the same way it would be boring, say, to follow a couple you meet in college around 24 hours a day. And then there are other books — “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld comes to mind — that are realistic in a sort of THRILLING way — you’re left wanting to say to the author, “I can’t believe how perfectly you described that!” Those of us who took creative writing courses in college (which I suspect might be just about all of us reading the blog!) probably remember a lot of student examples of the former: Yes, it’s realistic, but it’s also boring in just the way real life sometimes is. I was no doubt guilty of this in my own (long-ago) fiction-writing days. And yet “Prep” reminded me so much of my own high school and all the people in it — so why did I feel just the opposite, not bored at all but captivated by the realism? I don’t know. It’s an interesting question for readers and writers to contemplate.

  • Stephanie C.
    May 22, 2008 - 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Overall, while I was reading this book I enjoyed it. However, I didn’t really like how it ended. It sort of just stopped. I also agree that I wish so much wasn’t glossed over. It didn’t bother me until the end, when alot of things still never felt resolved. I guess as I was reading it I was hoping it tie up towards the end but it didn’t really. All in all, I’d probably give this book a 3 out of 5 – it was an interesting read, but it does not make me want to go out and read more by this author.

  • Michelle
    May 22, 2008 - 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Hi,
    I have mixed feelings about this book. I felt so much was left unresolved and that I never got to know many of the characters. The book didn’t seem to so much end, as stop.
    I felt that the character of Carter was underdeveloped. I wanted to know more about him. There was such a great setup, “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”. We didn’t get to know Carter later in the story any better than we knew him in college. He seemed to be such a complex character, that had such drive and potential in the story, but he seemed to coast along in life – where did that drive go?
    I enjoyed the book, but don’t know that I would seek out another book by this author.
    My questions for the author:
    At one point in the story, I was thinking, “This book is titled Matrimony, but at this point, no one is married”. How did the title come about? What were you trying to convey about marriage in this story?
    On page 143, “Well, according to him, you should write what you know about what you don’t know or what you don’t know about what you know. Keep it close enough to home that your heart is in it but far enough away that the imagination can take over. That way, you don’t descend into solipsism”. So, which did you do for this story?
    Thanks for letting me participate in this reading and discussion,
    Shell – who didn’t take any creative writing courses 🙂

  • Lisa
    May 22, 2008 - 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your book and got into the characters, their lives, feelings, etc… How much of Julian is about you or am I totally off based? Also, any other parallels to your own life? Thank you.
    Lisa

  • Jude
    May 22, 2008 - 2:01 pm | Permalink

    As I was reading “Matrimony,” it struck me that it must have been either an homage to a favorite professor or the result of a bet made after the last workshop (“Watch–I’ll bring up ‘show, don’t tell,’ then I’ll make fun of it, then I’ll write a whole book that’s almost entirely dialogue”). If that were true, it would be awesome.
    Whatever the genesis, I enjoyed the book, and the focus on dialogue, rather than long, descriptive passages, was appreciated. Several scenes were carefully, beautifully written, and I thought the concept(including the writing professor bit) was clever. I’ll read more from Mr. Henkin anytime.
    That said, I concur with the earlier posters who were unfulfilled by the novel. To use the author’s own words against him, I don’t think “the characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.” Part of that may be by design in a book this broad, but I wonder if we could have spent a FEW more words “telling” what was going on in Julian’s head. Not only did I never feel like I knew, but I also didn’t really wonder or have the opportunity to disagree with him all that much (though I do think he grossly overreacted to the big revelation).
    In the end, the combination of epic scope and spartan language, while ambitious, didn’t quite work for me. Virtually every big event in the human experience happened in “Matrimony,” and that’s a lot to cover in 304 pages. But I appreciated the attempt, and I look forward to reading more in the future.

  • Paula
    May 22, 2008 - 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this book, and I think it will be a good recommendation for summer reading. After reading some of the comments here, I might read it again myself this summer and see what I find in a second reading. I was drawn in by the details and the care that the author took with the characters’ every day lives and feelings for each other…but I agree with other commentators that I was left feeling disappointed. It almost felt like the author didn’t know where or how he wanted to end…which made me wonder how much of Julian’s life was his experience.

  • May 22, 2008 - 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Like many people who have already commented, I had mixed feelings about this book. I read it quickly and was engaged enough that I really did want to find out what happened to the characters. Some of my interest stems from the fact that parts of my life parallel the experiences of the characters. I’m about the same age, went to a small liberal arts college in New England, then a big research university for graduate school, have taught freshmen writing, have lived in Greenwich Village. Because of those parallels, much of the book seemed familiar to me, and the details differentiating the time periods and experiences struck me as accurate and telling. Although it was a little jarring at first, I did not mind the gaps in the story. In some ways, it was like catching up every few years with someone with whom I went to school.
    That said, Julian never rang true for me. Given his background, he seemed naive and unsophisticated. I never understood why he feels like an outsider in a world into which he was born. Not that it is an impossible or even unusual, I suppose, but I wanted a better sense of what shaped him. And because I did not, for want of a better term, completely buy him as a character, it was harder to become invested in the relationships he formed.

  • May 22, 2008 - 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I’m so late for the discussion! I just got off work. I really liked a lot of things about the book, namely the underlying story. I think the major put-off for the book was the title. The fact that it was named Matrimony made me think it was going to be more about marriage and the difficulties of marriage. But really, it was just about college best friends who both got married. I loved the story, and was actually relieved that it didn’t focus more on marriage. But the title definitely threw me off.
    I think one of the reasons I liked the book as much as I did was because I’d been through a lot of the same things Julian and Mia went through (without the happy reconciliation at the end). I really identified with Mia and knew exactly how she must have felt at several points in the book. From the being very religious at one point, to having the mother who gave everything up for her husband to well, the part that I shouldn’t give away for anyone who hasn’t read it.
    The biggest problem I had with the book was some of the big words. I’m not a person who is normally scared of words, but some of the words in this book felt a little pretentious for their setting. I felt like the characters wouldn’t have really used them (somnolent? who uses that in real life?) But then maybe they do on the East Coast.
    OK, there’s my two cents.

  • BethD
    May 23, 2008 - 1:05 am | Permalink

    I liked this book, although I agree with others who said they’d have liked Carter more fully developed. I thought Julian’s and Carter’s relationship was an interesting one – I don’t read much fiction that focuses on friendship between men, especially friendship that seems as intense and mature as theirs did. I felt somewhat like Carter’s seduction of Mia was out of character – I understood that he wanted what was Julian’s, but I felt like the way he went about it was kind of slimy, as if he were taking advantage of her. (Not that I necessarily think there is a “noble” way of seducing your best friend’s girlfriend!) I was surprised they would stay friends after that.
    The interaction between Carter and Julian on the basketball court regarding the the loan disclosure was an interesting one to me – I didn’t think Julian would react as strongly as he did to it. While I saw Julian as a character who would have very high standards for himself in terms of not taking advantage of connections or his wealthy background, I didn’t think he’d hold others to the same standard. I’d be interested in hearing more about this scene from Mr. Henkin, and how he sees it fitting into Julian’s character – did he feel betrayed that he was left out of the loop? That Carter would go directly to his father, with whom he had a distant relationship? That Carter should have stood on his own merits? That somehow the success of his company was tainted because of the source of the money and therefore not the high achievement he initially believed it to be? The entire b-ball court exchange seemed so quick to me – like how did things get so heated, so quickly with so little information exchanged. But I suppose life can be like that, too, where things can spiral out of control very quickly before people realize what they are saying.
    I was curious about Mia’s relationship with Olivia, and wonder if Mr. Henkin can talk about why Olivia wonders if she’s capable of feeling close to Mia, and why Mia didn’t really seem to react to Olivia’s statement – I think that would be a “big deal” – and yet nothing really comes of it. Is Olivia just too jealous of Mia’s good luck (real or perceived)? Does she still feel abandoned by Mia?
    My favorite character in the book was Henry. Perhaps because we know just little enough about him that I could project goodness and sturdiness onto him, without seeing his flaws? Somehow, Julian returning to the house and seeing Henry back up on the ladder, painting, made me feel affection for him.
    I also loved the way Mr. Henkin described Cooper. The little true-to-life descriptions of him made me yearn for my own dog, who died last year.
    I agree with the reader above who said the characters will stay with her – I’d like to know what they’re up to now.
    Gayle, thank you, I really appreciate the opportunity to participate in the reading and discussion of this book!!!

  • BethD
    May 23, 2008 - 1:10 am | Permalink

    Clarification to my post above – when I say in the first paragraph that I was surprised they would stay friends after that, I meant that I was surprised Carter and Mia could continue to be friends and act normally in the immediate aftermath of their affair (affair doesn’t really seem to be the right word – indiscretion? transgression?). I just think she’d feel some anger at him for getting her when she was vulnerable – there’s always the flip side, that she could have felt like that was a refuge when she was vulnerable, but I didn’t get that feeling at all.

  • jas
    May 23, 2008 - 6:41 am | Permalink

    I did not get a chance to write my empressions of Matrimony yesterday. The author Joshua Henkin has a very understated and sparse way of telling a story. As a number of the posts state, the characters Julian, Carter and Mia show very little emotion even during the most dramactic moments in the book such as when Julian and Mia break up. I too was hoping for more analysis of their feelings and the future of their relationship when they get back together 18 months later. I understood Julian’s and Carter’s friendship better. Friendships from college can last a lifetime and endure many ups and downs. One of the plot points that I really got tired of was how long it took Julian to write his novel. It seemed like Julian and Mia were staying adolescents untel he finished his book and could only move on into the next stage of their life after he finished the book. I would recommend this book with some resevations to other people.

  • Sheila
    May 23, 2008 - 7:24 am | Permalink

    I am sorry to be so late in coming into this discussion (computer problems, you all know how that is!). I was not able to read all the comments, but most appreciated TLC in her comment that the prose was flat. In a book like this, all about relationships, I would have liked to know more about the feelings behind the relationships. I thought some of the characters could have been really interesting, and being that I am not a writer, I would have loved to have a better insight into the world of writer, but the characters mostly just left me cold. It wasn’t like I couldn’t finish the book, I found it a quick read, but that is in part the problem. I read it quickly because I was searching for more.

  • May 24, 2008 - 8:46 pm | Permalink

    I also apologize for coming late to the party, and really there isn’t too much to add-so many good points have been made already! I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked the book (didn’t love it), I liked the characters- although I wanted more from them in the way of emotion and dialogue. I felt Carter was underdeveloped (he started off so well and with so much complexity). I felt that the title Matrimony was a misnomer and that this book didn’t reflect marriage so much as relationships. I would have liked the sister relationship to have been better developed. Some of the book was a bit tedious to read because nothing much happened for long stretches of time. It was like reading about someone’s daily life in great detail–too much detail, I guess. I didn’t understand Julian’s feelings of being an outsider in a world he was extremely familiar with. It seemed that someone with his background would be more sophisticated. I felt throughout like I was waiting for something to happen, for their “real life” to begin- maybe that was what I was supposed to feel- maybe the characters were waiting for their lives to begin too. It just wasn’t a very satisfying read for me, as much as I really wanted to like it. The end just stopped. It didn’t seem like the end of a novel so much as the author decided to stop writing-as if maybe he’d come back to it another day. IT was well written, and it could have/should have been great, but it never reached greatness (for me).

  • May 25, 2008 - 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi- I commented on the book the other day and when I came back to read the other opinions, I don’t see my comment posted …. not sure what happened.
    The gist of my review is in agreement with many of the other posters. I agree that the book is an enjoyable, quick read. I think it would be a good beach basket addition for someone who wants a light, engaging book. I enjoyed Henkin’s style, and think he does a wonderful job with conversation – it flows naturally and is believable.
    I was glad Julian and Mia made it back together. Is this possibly the title – ‘matrimony’ – the give and take, but the ultimate rightness of it for some people. And even if it is ‘right,’ it’s not gonna be easy.
    I won’t rewrite my review from earlier – I’ll just have to figure out if I’m doing something wrong with posting. Not sure if you have to be signed in …. or maybe I never hit POST!

  • May 25, 2008 - 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Thank you to all of you who weighed in on “Matrimony” (and sorry to Ameryan for the loss of your first comment – I hate when that happens!). This has been a very interesting discussion and I, for one, have learned more about the book and gotten a greater appreciation of it from reading other perspectives.

  • susan
    May 25, 2008 - 10:37 pm | Permalink

    I just finished the book, sorry so late. I will add my comments tomorrow. After I have digested the book. I hope I hope it is not too late to add my two cents.

  • Susan
    May 29, 2008 - 9:48 am | Permalink

    Here are go again. I have tried to leave my post but I lost it a few times. Anyway, here are my thoughts to Matrimony. I am sorry to say I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would. It was more a beach read, light reading. I was expecting much more with the characters. Let’s say Carter growing up. He was always detesting the rich. But then he became friends with Julian. I liked the part of the literary workshop. And talking about preventative surgery. There
    I read the book in a few days. I guess I finished the book hoping that there would be more. But that never happened. I am not sure if I liked any one character. The story did not flow it just kept getting interrupted. There were al ot of empty holes, and not a explainations. Most of the other members who posted said basically the same thing so I am not going to add any more comments. And the end of the story seemed liked the author just wanted to finish the book already.
    The character, Julian seemed to keep moving never staying in one place. I really thought this book had a interesting premise. There could have been a lot more that the author could have done with this book. I am sorry to tell the author that I did not love it. But I won’t say that I wasted my money on the book. Because I still liked it. It was a good escape book if that is what you are looking for. I wish I could have praised the book since the author left a nice post on another blog about book clubs but I can’t. I would tell any of my friends if you are looking for a beach read to pick this one.

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