Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
Copyright 2007
Pantheon Books/Fiction
291 pages

Careful visiting Joshua Henkins' website. I got so caught up reading the author's bio and interview that I lost track of time and forgot I'm supposed to be writing a book review. Oopsy.

I read seemingly a zillion reviews of Matrimony before my own copy arrived; bloggers everywhere appear to enjoy it. Ask me if I agree with them. Go ahead, ask.

Yes. I truly enjoyed this book. And, I'm going to tell you why, you lucky devil. But, first the brief synopsis, which I've borrowed from Nat at In Spring it is the Dawn:

It is 1987, and Julian Wainwright, aspiring writer and Waspy son of New York City old money, meets beautiful, Jewish Mia Mendelsohn in the laundry room at Graymont College. So begins a love affair that, spurred on by family tragedy, will take Julian and Mia across the country and back, through several college towns, spanning twenty years.

Starting at the height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium, Matrimony is about love and friendship, about money and ambition, desire and tensions of faith. It asks what happens to a marriage when it is confronted by betrayal and the specter of mortality. What happens when people marry younger than they’d expected? Can love endure the passing of time?

Now, a confession. I am having a terrible time writing this review and I have no idea why. So, I'm going to ask myself some questions.

Me: What is it about the book that makes you say you "truly enjoyed" it?

Myself: I found the book difficult to put down. It's not gripping in a "things happen fast" way but in the opposite way. Matrimony is a relationship story, about Julian and Mia, their friend Carter, their families, and the challenges they face. I found it gripping because, in spite of the fact that Julian and Mia are really nothing at all like me, I could relate to many of their experiences and struggles -- early marriage, self-doubt and grief, in particular. Parts of the book take place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my husband and I lived for a year. I enjoyed revisiting Ann Arbor as written by a man who really knew the city. And, Mia loses her mother to cancer, which I've just recently experienced.

Me: In what ways could you not relate to the characters?

Myself: Julian was spectacularly wealthy by birth. I assumed he was a trust fund baby and just had a pile his parents stuck in the bank because he always had access to money. That's foreign to me. I was reared by two of the biggest tightwads on the planet and money was something I earned or did without. When I was around 7, I grew pumpkins and dragged them around my neighborhood in a wagon, selling them for fifty cents a piece. I just couldn't relate to his financial freedom.

Julian decided to be a writer and his raison d'etre was all about writing the novel. I have never been able to imagine myself just going for the goal when it comes to writing. I'm still visualizing the "day job" I never got around to because I'm one of those weird 50's-mentality traditionalists who couldn't fathom leaving her children in someone else's care.

Mia -- not sure I ever fully understood her motives but her emotions in regard to her mother were all too familiar. This is exactly how I feel, right now, about my mother's house:

"You know what I think? They should make a law that after a person dies their house has to remain empty for a while. Let it lie fallow."

Me: What else did you like about the book?

Myself: There were some wonderful, realistic bits and pieces. The book is a nice mix of everyday life, quiet conversation, real-life conflict and upheaval, confusion and resolve. Life in the real world often doesn't contain a lot of action, but it does have plenty of ups and downs and it's realistic conflict that you read about in this book. As in real life, humorous moments are blended in. When Julian was teaching himself to cook, I was surprised to find that he took recipes as literally as I still do (always a problem):

Sometimes the recipe said "twelve baby carrots or two carrots peeled," but twelve baby carrots never equaled two carrots peeled, and he'd be lining up the carrots next to one another, trying to guess the right amount. Or "eight ounces of apple." Was that before you peeled and cored the apples or afterward? He bought a large spice rack, but he didn't know much about spices, so without regard for what they were, he moved alphabetically through the supermarket spice section, sweeping jars into his cart like a looter.

Me: You peeked at the reviews at Amazon, you naughty thing. What surprised you about the comments in the Amazon reviews?

Myself: I was surprised at the broad spectrum of ratings -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I wasn't surprised that some people considered it dull because the cover makes it appear "light", in my opinion, and false expectation can lead to disappointment. Matrimony isn't fluffy. It's really what I'd term "literary". Literature often requires patience. You have to be willing to adjust to the pace. Also, one person thought the characters were "full of themselves". But, really, aren't we all? It's Julian's story and if you're telling your own story it's all about "Me, Myself, and I". The characters interested me; they pulled me in and held on. I cared about what happened to them.

Me: Poor editing drives you nuts and grammatical errors cause you to see red. What did you think of the writing?

Myself: Almost flawless. I'm not perfect, but I didn't spot a single technical error. There was only one annoyance: the use of the word "for", repeatedly. Occasionally, a semicolon in lieu of the same old preposition would have provided a nice break.

Me: Who else has reviewed it in the Blog World?

Myself: I'm going to cheat, here. Nat has a terrific set of links at the bottom of her review.

Me: Rating?

Myself: Recommended, especially when you're in the mood for a quiet, realistic relationship book. Not for times when you're yearning for action.

Me to Readers: Thanks. You're incredibly patient and tolerant if you made it this far. For the fun of it, here is my favorite sandwich from Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor (the "Leo's Friendly Lion"), with gushy gratitude to Josh Henkin for getting Ann Arbor right:

On this day in Bookfool's reading history, 1998: I finished The Third Twin by Ken Follett and began reading The Promise of Light by Paul Watkins.

Coming up: Belated wahoos and July in review.

Happy Wahoo Wednesday!


  1. I hadn't heard of the book before and to be honest, with a title like Matrimony, I wouldn't have given it a try. But thanks to your wonderful review (how do you it, btw? I'm always struggling with mine), I'll put it on my wishlist.

  2. Great review! I love the format you've created, asking yourself all those questions.

    Matrimony isn't fluffy. It's really what I'd term "literary". Literature often requires patience. You have to be willing to adjust to the pace. And these are the type of books I really enjoy! I like fluff, but only in small doses. I generally prefer something a little meatier. Something that makes me think or affirms my own thoughts and feelings.

    This sounds like a winner and one I'll add to my TBR list. Thanks for the great review. And, the tempting sandwich! Even at 5:50 am, it looks delicious! ;)

  3. I'm so happy! Josh Henkin contacted me today and asked if I'd be interested in doing a paperback giveaway of Matrimony! YES! So I didn't read your review as carefully as I usually do.

    Love that sandwich!

    Love your reading history! May I steal that?

  4. That part about cooking is hilarious-that's kind of what my mom is like. I drive her insane, because I don't even use measuring cups/spoons most of the time (unless it's baking). So when I make something she likes, she'll try to write down a recipe by asking me about twenty different questions to pinpoint my vagueness.

  5. Marny,

    Cool! I'm glad to know my review captured your interest, especially since I feel really bizarre for having to ask myself questions. Whatever works, I guess! I really struggle with a lot of reviews, too. Sometimes, using pre-written questions ("Why did you choose to read this book? What did you think of the characters?") helps. :)


    Matrimony does seem like your type of book. Thanks, I'm glad you liked that Q/A format! My usual canned questions didn't seem right for this particular book and just writing about the story wasn't happening, so I had to try something different.

    That sandwich was almost unbearably good. Bybee and I are going to have a paperback giveaway of this book (I'll put my sticky up around the 16th), so watch for drawings!


    I was hoping he'd contact you. :) I don't think I gave anything away, but I like to skip or skim reviews if I'm planning to read a book in the near future, so I don't blame you. Hope you love Matrimony!

    I'd give you a bite, if the sandwich wasn't already gone.

    Yes, you may steal my reading history. :)

  6. I already wanted to read this book, but after your review, I REALLY want to read it! I like the unique "interviewing yourself" format--cute! By the way, what is that little figurine next to your sandwich?

  7. Eva,

    You cook like my husband. He just tosses in ingredients by memory or guesses what will work. The trouble with that is consistency. Sometimes he'll completely forget what he did to make something come out perfect. And, the next time he makes it, it's totally different. But, hey, he cooks. I'm happy. :)

  8. LOVE the review format :-) Probably not a book I would have ever picked up, but your review makes it sound interesting for when I'm in the mood for a genre break.

    I also love the "On this day in Bookfool's reading history". I don't have my reading list for that far back. Didn't start tracking till Oct. 2003

  9. Laura,

    Thanks for saying that. I feel all glowy knowing I've tossed you over the edge of reason and into the "REALLY in all caps" zone! :)

    I was worried that questioning myself would be too weird, so I'm glad to know you enjoyed the format! Pssst, the book comes out in paperback on August 26 -- both Bybee and I are going to have drawings for a copy.

    That little figurine is a poppet. The artist's website is here:


    Thank you, both for the compliment on the format and the remark that I've made the book sound interesting! I'm going to have a drawing in honor of the paperback release, so check back to sign up in about 10 days. :)

    I really had no idea my reading calendars went back so far; I just found quite a pile of them, last week. It's fun to look back and see how my reading habits have changed. The oldest calendar I've got is 1997, so I've got a full decade's worth!

  10. I really like the way that you set up this review. I had actually thought this was light, fluffy, chick lit until I read your post.

  11. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Brilliant interview! I've got to pick up his book.

    I keep wishing I'd kept track of the books I've read over the years. It never, ever occurred to me until I discovered online friends who kept spreadsheets.

  12. Nyssaneala,

    Thanks! I had fun with that review, once I figured out a method that worked. :)

    I also thought Matrimony was going to be fluffy. The cover is really misleading. I wonder if the publishers are aware that the chick-littish style has put off some potential readers. Then again, it could have also encouraged a few chick lit lovers to make that all-important impulse purchase.


    Aw, shucks. Thank you. Hang in there -- the paperback release is August 26 and I'm going to have a drawing for a copy. I'll put a sticky up in about 10 days.

    I have no idea why I started recording my reads on a monthly calendar, but I'm glad I did. I'm kind of a calendar addict, I guess. Shoot, I've still got the calendar upon which I wrote down the time of my first date with hubby (along with school assignments -- ah, those were the days). Do you think you haven't bothered recording your reads because you're a little tired of spreadsheets by day's end?

  13. First--I love that you included what you were reading 10 years ago. I didn't start keeping track until 1999 and not specific dates until 2000 (pretty good for a then 19 year old--OR foreshadowing of the neurotic mess that I've become...).

    I loved the interview with yourself and to be honest I hadn't really wanted to read this book after reading the other reviews. But now, I'm really interested--so thanks. :) I like quiet books--a little action is nice here and there but I'd go for the character development over plot development any day.

    I wanted to say something else but can't remember and dinner is ready so I guess that's the end. Have a great evening Bookfool! Oh--and maybe you can help Laura and I out and tell us what a poppet is (yes, it is that cute little guy next to your sandwich) but WHAT is a poppet. :)

  14. Trish,

    LOL about the foreshadowing! I've always been a nut about writing things down on calendars (still have one of my HS calendars, somewhere) but I don't think I started keeping track of my reads on a monthly calendar until about 1997. It's really fun to look back and see how your taste has changed!

    Wow, that's a huge compliment, thanks! If you prefer character development over plot, I think you'll like Matrimony. My reads are usually a really broad mix and I was expecting a fluffy read, but it didn't matter since the book grabbed me, right off the bat. :)

    What is a poppet? Well, it's a little figurine dressed in a hooded cloak. LOL I guess they're like tiny dolls -- not sure of the intent behind their creation, but I noticed a lot of bloggers were posing poppets with their books and thought they were cute, so I bought one. And, then another. And, another. I can't say what their purpose is, but they do pose nicely! Did you see the link to Poppet Planet in my response to Laura? That's the artist's website.

  15. Sounds great! I am adding it to my list!

  16. Love you asking questions to yourself! Another great review!
    BTW, I'll be having a draw too. Either end of the month or early Sept. Will have to check with Josh again.

    And I quite like the looks of that pickle! Hmm, I think that doesn't sound quite as I intended! ;)
    But it's hard to get good dill pickles here. And cereal. I'm really missing Cheerios right now. :(

  17. Hi Nat!

    Thank you! I wondered if you'd also have a drawing. Bloggers everywhere should be holding their breath in anticipation. :)

    That pickle . . . sinful. Zingerman's has fantastic pickles. Don't worry, your comment didn't sound bizarre. You're talking to a chick who eats a "nightly pickle" before bed. Weird, but true. What, no Cheerios in Japan? Horrors!

  18. Anonymous5:32 PM

    How could one ever be sick of spreadsheets? Impossible.

    I think I've just read for so much of my life that it would be like noting down breathing. It just never occurred to me.

    You eat a pickle every night? Weird. :)

  19. Carrie,

    You're right; it's impossible. I love spreadsheets. They make my heart go pitty-pat.

    Yeah, I didn't bother for years, but I think the reason I began to write down the titles of books I'd completed was because of Dick Francis. His titles really weren't indicative of storyline, so I kept bringing home books I'd already read. And, since Dick Francis wrote a lot of books, I began to keep track of what I'd finished to avoid that problem.

    Most nights, yes. It's a phase.

  20. Brilliant post! Love the question and answer session you came up with - so clever. I enjoyed this book too, for many of the same reasons. And I am really attracted to that yellow bathroom for some reason.

  21. What a unique and clever way to write a book review.. I loved it! I liked Matrimony too and for whatever reason I also found writing the review a challenge. You mentioned the repeated use of the word "for" and I noticed that too! I also noticed the word "repose" used 3 times- I don't know if I've ever used that word in everyday speech in my entire life, so that kinda bugged me (silly, huh?)

  22. Tara,

    Thank you! I've been quite relieved to find that everyone seems to have enjoyed my crazy Q/A method of reviewing. I remember reading your review, now. As I was writing mine, I thought, "I know I read about this book all over the place," but I couldn't remember quite where (besides Nat's blog). Aha! :) Yes, that bathroom cover is very appealing, isn't it? I do think it makes the book appear to be a chick-littish type, but the cover is still a grabber.


    I think maybe the book is hard to describe because it's gentle but sprawling. There isn't any one tremendous tragedy that moves the plot along; it's really about life and marriage and the bumps along the way -- over quite a lengthy time period. That's harder to describe than a book that's specifically about infidelity or deals primarily with a tragic death, etc. (Yes, I've given it some thought!)

    Funny that you noticed the word "for", also! "Repose" didn't jump out at me, but whenever I see the word, I think of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. I can't say it's a word I use in conversation.

  23. Anonymous11:13 AM

    It's funny you say that about Angle of Repose, because when I first started reading Matrimony, I commented to the author through email that his novel seemed similar to Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety (which I'd just read at the time) and he said I was not the first to make that observation.

  24. LOL - you are so funny! I loved the interview with yourself! What a great idea!
    I just heard from this author last week and have a copy coming my way, so will be anxious to read it.
    BTW, YUMMY looking sandwich!!

  25. Lisamm,

    Darn. Now, I'm going to have to look up Crossing to Safety. Is your middle name "Enabler"? ;)


    Thanks! I think I know you well enough to safely predict that you'll love Matrimony.

    The sandwich was sinfully delicious. I highly recommend a stop at Zingerman's, if you ever happen to be in Southeast Michigan. :)


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