“If I want to,” she said. “If they want to kiss me back.”
He leaned across the table and so did she, their bodies hovering above their pasta bowls and the tiny saucer of olive oil with red pepper flakes swimming in it.
“You’re a very handsome man.”
“Why? No one’s every called you handsome before?”
“No one’s ever called me a man.” Her fingers were touching his, lightly, lightly, and his fingers were touching hers back. - from Matrimony, page 46 -
Matrimony by Josh Henkin is a love story between characters Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn which spans nearly 20 years, from the time that they meet at Graymont College in New England until they are both in their mid-30s. The years pass and they find love as well as turmoil and tragedy, making their way from New England to Michigan and finally to New York. Mia and Julian’s journey together is marked by Julian’s struggle to find his voice as a writer, and Mia’s attempts to reconcile her life in the shadow of her mother’s untimely death to breast cancer. Matrimony also explores a parallel story - that of Julian’s friendship with Carter Heinz, a boy he meets in a creative writing course in college. Carter comes with his own baggage having been raised by modest means and always feeling inferior to those around him who have money and prestige.
Henkin’s voice is clear and probing, examining the faults and strengths of his characters through spot-on dialogue. He captures the joy of first love as well as the pain of failed relationships.
My only bone to pick with the writing was Henkin’s tendency to abruptly switch point of view - a technique which can make the reader feel unsettled and disassociated from the characters. At these points in the story, I found myself re-reading passages - a reminder I was reading rather than experiencing the story.
Despite this flaw, Matrimony works on several levels. There is a nostalgia the reader feels for the lives of these characters who demonstrate the complexities of love, friendship and ambition while remaining ‘real’ and original. I found myself hoping for their success, while mourning their mistakes. There were moments when I laughed, relating to a marital situation that felt all too real.
Matrimony was recognized as a NYT Most Notable book in 2007, and was also named a Book Sense Highlight Pick of the Year, and a Borders Original Voices Selection. Henkin has authored one other novel - Swimming Across the Hudson - as well as several short stories which have been published in the esteemed Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, and other well-known print magazines.
Readers who enjoy character driven novels will appreciate Matrimony.