Covering almost twenty years from 1986 to 2006, Joshua Henkin's Matrimony follows the path of wealthy New Yorker Julian Wainwright, his Canadian girlfriend, Mia Mendehlson, and his best friend, Carter Heinz, whom Julian meets while studying fiction writing at prestigious Graymont College in New York.
Julian leads a charmed life and comes across as a sophisticated New Yorker. Worldly and urbane, with an indifference to his family's wealth that only the wealthy can afford, life for Julian is well and truly manifested in a sense of entitlement and a way of being in the world that is entirely at ease, particularly with regard to money.
Lately, though, Julian has been taken with the sense that his life is romantic and that the life of a young man at college is the only life to live. Perhaps it is these qualities that initially attract him to Carter, although Carter makes it obvious from the outset that he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about Julian's wealth. Even so, the two form a budding friendship that helps them get through many of the trials of college life.
Filled with a melancholy whose roots he can't seem to unearth and also feeling unappreciated when some girls turn him down, Julian jumps at the opportunity to meet and date glamorous Mia from Montreal. Her dark, curly hair and her wire-rimmed glasses give her a look of contemplation; to Julian, she's certainly "not your typical Canadian."
Throughout their first week together, it is almost as if Julian and Mia are coasting along on adrenaline, and "to be nineteen and making love wherever you wished" - this Julian thinks
is how a person should live. They end up going everywhere together, he to her classes, while she, after their first night together, tells him that she has loved him from the start.
Meanwhile, Carter becomes consumed with a strange mixture of career angst and class envy. He clearly loves Julian as a friend, but he's also vaguely irritated by Julian's attitude toward money and wealth. Carter sees life at Graymont as prep school all over again, so after a less than stellar academic year, he decides to follow his dream of becoming rich. Determined never to have a boss and partial to academic shortcuts, Carter ends up embarking on a circuitous path to law school.
As the Eighties head into the Nineties, Julian pursues a job teaching composition classes in Ann Arbor and attempts to build a life with Mia. But plagued with a constant self-doubt, the idea of becoming a fully published novelist seems to elude him, and he figures he can only ever be happy if he were successful.
The sorrow is so deep in him that he believes he can only uproot it with acclaim.
For her part, Mia comes to feel as though she is on Julian's ride and that by being married to him she has become "lassoed by his despair." At times she wonders whether they made a mistake in marrying so hurriedly. The story seems familiar as Henkin charts the pessimism surrounding Mia's mother's battle with breast cancer and Carterís career as he rises to the top of the Internet boom, and Julian's as he steadfastly follows his dreams of becoming a published author.
As these characters seek to redefine themselves and their distorted boundaries of love and marriage, the author writes with a disarmingly cool clarity about college life and the world of the struggling writer. When a long-ago betrayal awakens a deep-seated hurt, the very gravity of the act proves to be so dangerous that it sets off an irrevocable chain of events that tests the limits of Julian and Mia's fragile commitment to each other.
The issues surrounding marriage - that of getting married and of staying married
- are obviously central to the novel, along with love, loss, and the moral compromises and indulgences that we are forced to make over the years. Certainly for Julian, Mia and Carter, life becomes a series of negotiations, of offers and concessions that race back and forth between them.
At times the story languishes, there are long periods where the prose reads flat, and Henkin doesn't really flesh out the time periods as well as he should. Overall, Matrimony is not as colorful and interesting as it purports to be. Still, the novel does speak volumes about loyalty and friendship, and also about the struggling writer's life in a world where the characters grow older, surging forward and struggling with the choices that they are forced to make.