In the first chapter of Matrimony, Joshua Henkin’s sophomore effort, the main character, Julian Wainwright, sits in a creative writing class at a small, (very) liberal Eastern college. The professor lists the golden rules of writing on the blackboard, rules such as “THOU SHALT NOT USE THE WORD ‘KERPLUNK’ IN YOUR SHORT STORIES,’ and ‘THOU SHALT NEVER USE PASS-THE-SALT DIALOGUE.” Another rule frequently issued by creative writing instructors (though not this one) is “THOU SHALT NOT MAKE THE PROTAGONIST A WRITER.” The reason for this has never been explained to me, but I’m guessing it’s because a) the act of sitting at a desk and writing is not interesting in and of itself and b) it can be difficult to work up sympathy for someone who shelled out several tens of thousands of dollars for an M.F.A. and then goes around whining because “the writing” isn’t going well.
In fact, there were times when I was annoyed with the independently wealthy wanna-be writer Julian. His wife, Mia, works hard, but at one point Julian gets peeved because she leaves the dishes in the sink. He can’t get his writing done because he feels compelled to wash those dishes. Interestingly, writing books and essays directed at women often advise them to forget about the housework. “Hey, Julian!” I wanted to say. “Why don’t you try writing a novel while taking care of twin toddlers?” But maybe I’m just jealous. Julian manages to publish a couple of stories in the very prestigious Harper’s Magazine even before he enters the very prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
However, I actually enjoy reading about the lives of writers, and I’m glad that Henkin chose to ignore that writing dictum about author characters. I enjoyed reading about Julian’s struggles as a writer. But this isn’t just a story about writing; it’s also a novel about friendship and marriage and family. Henkin tracks the lives of Julian, his best friend Carter, whom he meets in the creative writing class, and Mia, whom he meets and falls in love with in the laundry room at college.
The charismatic Carter is a talented writer from California, but he is more interested in acquiring money than in becoming an author. I kept expecting him to become a larger than life character like Gatsby, but Henkin is more subtle than that. Although Carter ultimately makes a lot of money, he remains real.
Julian, meanwhile, pursues his dream of publication on various college campuses, such as the Univeristy of Michigan in Ann Arbor (go, blue!) and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While an M.F.A. student, Julian muses, “There had emerged in American fiction a strain of excess…a group of knowing authors whose every sentence seemed to shout, ‘Look how smart I am.’ He had nothing against muscular prose; it was the flexing of those muscles that he objected to, and, along with it, a disregard for character, which for him, was what fiction was all about.”
This could just as easily refer to the novel at hand. As the cover, with its his and her toothbrushes, implies, Matrimony concentrates on the ordinary details of married life, such as – yes – whose turn it is to do the dishes. And even when dealing with major life issues such as the death of a parent, infidelity, and infertility, Henkin keeps the volume turned down low.
Through such restraint, Henkin creates characters that are flawed, human, and utterly believable. I found myself caring deeply about what happened to them, and I was reminded that even the most ordinary of lives is rich with complexity.
This novel has been selected as a Booksense pick and for Borders Original Voices.