Matrimony's focus then becomes the relationship between Julian and Mia. It is the story of a marriage, pressured into existence, perhaps too early, by family tragedy, and tested by youthful mistakes. In a way, it is also a novel about growing up--about how some people avoid it, and some people are forced into it, but everyone, eventually, does it.
Henkin's prose style is straightforward, yet understated, and works really well in telling this story. The smaller moments in the story were well observed, but I found Henkin's understated style was even better employed in the situations that had more emotional weight. For example, there was a real power to the spare writing when Mia was interacting with her dying mother, or Julian was trying to figure out his parents' failing marriage.
As I've said many times, good characters really make a book for me, and Henkin's characters are very well realized. Carter, Julian's best friend/rival, was a character I enjoyed disliking. He has a huge chip on his shoulder and has a hard time growing up--he's flawed, like real people are--and his development throughout the story felt real.
Not only did I relate to the main characters, I also enjoyed the colorful minor characters, especially curmudgeonly (or maybe it's long-suffering) Professor Chesterfield, Julian's first writing teacher. His commandments about writing made me laugh: "Thou shalt never use pass-the-salt dialogue, Thou shalt populate your stories with homo sapiens, Thou shalt not confuse a short story with a Rubik's Cube." All good advice, I'm sure! In fact, Chesterfield gives a nugget of writing advice that is among the best I've ever heard, and gets around the old adage that you should only write what you know: "...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." I read this to my husband, who occasionally teaches screenwriting, and he said, "Ooh, that's a good way to say it," and wrote it down.
The novel also has a wonderful sense of place. I happen to know many of the places Henkin describes, which made the book feel familiar and comfortable. But even the places I've never been felt familiar; to me that's a sign that Henkin's descriptions really ring true.
Overall, I found this book to be a quietly satisfying read, something I looked forward to returning to. The characters were like old friends, and the stories of love and friendship were skillfully woven together into an understated yet elegant package.
I've rounded up some information for you regarding this book. Author Joshua Henkin has a great website you should visit, and he did a really interesting interview about book groups on Lisa's blog, Books on the Brain.
Matrimony, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2007, is being released in paperback this month.
And now for the BONUS:
In honor of this book's release in paperback, I'll be holding a drawing for a brand spanking new copy of the paperback edition of Matrimony during the week of September 22nd. More details then!
Isn't the new paperback cover nice?