There’s the election, hot on the heels of Halloween, followed too quickly by Thanksgiving and then, good grief, the December holidays. In the midst of these various sorts of hysteria, let’s hear it for an unflashy novel, a contemplative exploration of friendship, love, marriage, money, and, of all things, approaching middle age – Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony.
The novel is bookended at Graymont, a New England liberal arts college where Julian Wainwright, aspiring writer and son of a WASPy Manhattan investment banker, and Jewish Mia Mendelsohn, daughter of a Canadian physics professor and erstwhile academic mother, meet and fall in love. It closes with their return, for their fifteenth reunion. In between, Julian and Mia, along with their friends Carter and Piilar, move from going to classes and sharing a house off campus to an abrupt decision to marry when Mia’s mother develops terminal breast cancer. The scenes of their campus life are vivid, but some of the most compelling moments depict Mia and her mother as the older woman faces death and Julian’s quiet companionship in support of Mia’s worry and grief. Later, there’s an interlude at the University of Michigan, where Mia studies for a doctorate and Julian works on his novel while teaching composition. There’s a heartbreaking, almost brutal separation, a reuniting in Manhattan, a child, even a dog, and the peace that a loving domestic life can bring. Until, once again, it’s broken.
This is not a novel of suspense by any means, but the quiet and sensitively rendered way these lives unfold makes it unseemly for a reviewer to reveal too much. Suffice it to say that by the time Julian, Mia and Carter attend that fifteenth college reunion, they have become grown-ups.
By no means incidentally, Matrimony is also about becoming a writer, though I suspect this will not be its main appeal for most readers. That will lie instead with its insights into the loyalties, frustrations and betrayals large and small that confront good people we come to care about who commit their lives to one another.