Matrimony – Book Review


“Do you always kiss your dates?”

“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.”

He laughed.

“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.


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    • Kathy on February 14, 2009 at 12:19

    I did enjoy this book and wondered if it was based on the author’s life at all.

    • Teddy on February 14, 2009 at 18:45

    Really nice review Wendy. I have read a lot of reviews of this book and wrote it off as pure chick lit. I see now that it is much deeper then that. Thanks!

    • Wendy on February 16, 2009 at 09:16

    Kathy: It *did* feel a bit autobiographical…but as a writer myself I know that much of a writer’s life ends up in bits and pieces in stories with quite a few “adjustments” to the reality!

    Teddy: Thanks. I would not call it chick lit at all…I’ll be interested to see what you think when you read it!

    • Anna on February 16, 2009 at 12:07

    I’ve seen mixed reviews for this one. I’ve heard it’s slow going, and now that I know the POV switches suddenly…I bet that will drive me nuts. I won this in a contest awhile back, but I haven’t had a chance to read it.

  1. I enjoyed this one, but it is definitely slow!

    • Wendy on February 18, 2009 at 08:27

    Anna: Many people really gushed over this book, so I hope you will read it with an open mind 🙂 And I will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    S. Krishna: *nods* You and I usually have similar reactions to books, don’t we?

    • Linda in Maine on March 3, 2009 at 16:51

    Wendy, I read this too and enjoyed it very much; it was just what I was in the mood for when I picked it up. I’m lending my copy to the moderator of my book group to see if she thinks it might work for a discussion next season.

    • Wendy on March 7, 2009 at 11:09

    Linda: I actually think this would be a terrific book for a book group – there is much to discuss!

    • Linda in Maine on March 7, 2009 at 14:12

    Wendy, my book group is part of the “Literature & Medicine: humanities at the heart of health care” program. That’s a superb initiative that was started in Maine (funded by the Humanities Council), and now gone national.

    From the program website: “The program encourages participants to connect the worlds of science and lived experience, giving them the opportunity to reflect on their professional roles and relationships through plays, short stories, poetry, fiction and personal narratives in a setting where they can share their reflections with colleagues. It has a significant effect on the way participants understand their work, and their relationships with patients and with each other. It is also an innovative and cost-effective way to improve patient care.”

    Most of our choices are from the program reading list, and there are so many books that bring in the element of health issues and their effect on relationships … I could make that case for Matrimony on the basis of the breast cancer plot line.

    If there is anyone reading this comment who works in a health care setting, I encourage them to see whether their state participates in Literature & Medicine; it’s a wonderful program!

    • Wendy on March 9, 2009 at 07:09

    Thanks for this information, Linda…I will need to see if we have such a program here. Given my work in the medical field, I have a feeling I’d enjoy that…by the way, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is also a good read and involves a child with Down’s Syndrome and how the medical profession approached children with this syndrome years ago. It might be a good read for your group.

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