By – February 24, 2012

I can­not remem­ber read­ing a nov­el whose title announced so defin­i­tive­ly what the book was about. Mat­ri­mo­ny is about mar­riage — and not just that of the main char­ac­ters, Mia Mendel­sohn and Julian Wain­wright, but by exten­sion, that of the par­ents of each, and, periph­er­al­ly, the com­pli­cat­ed love rela­tion­ships of Mia’s sis­ter and Julian’s col­lege bud­dy. Henkin, him­self a col­lege teacher, is com­fort­able with the frame­work of the col­lege cam­pus. From the small under­grad­u­ate New Eng­land cam­pus to grad­u­ate school years at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan to the Iowa Writ­ing work­shops, the mar­riage is explored through betray­al and loss. From their first meet­ing in a dor­mi­to­ry laun­dry room to their town house in New York City, Mia and Julian’s com­mit­ment to each oth­er must sur­vive sev­er­al tests. Julian, a writer, has pub­lished sev­er­al short sto­ries in lit­er­ary jour­nals, and is at work on a nov­el through most of the book. As the only child of an afflu­ent WASP New York fam­i­ly, Julian dis­ap­points their expec­ta­tion that he would fol­low in his father’s foot­steps into the world of high finance. Mia’s father is also dis­ap­point­ed in his offspring’s choic­es. A physi­cist, he views psy­chol­o­gy, Mia’s career choice, as a soft” sci­ence. In her ado­les­cence, when she briefly iden­ti­fied as Ortho­dox, her par­ents were bare­ly tol­er­ant. Her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the twen­ty years of this sto­ry is defined by the mourn­ing rit­u­al of observ­ing the shi­va peri­od when her moth­er dies and her attempts to observe the kad­dish and yahrzeit rit­u­als. Julian doesn’t write mus­cu­lar” prose and nei­ther does Joshua Henkin. How­ev­er, his char­ac­ter depic­tions and the col­lege cam­pus, where the atmos­phere of youth, career and polit­i­cal con­cerns per­vade, make Mat­ri­mo­ny an engross­ing read. 

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House

1. Dis­cuss the par­ent-child rela­tion­ships in the nov­el. How much are the lives of Julian, Mia, and Carter a rejec­tion of their par­ents’ lives? Despite how much they try to get away from the pat­terns of their par­ents, are they suc­cess­ful? Also con­sid­er Pro­fes­sor Chester­field as a replace­ment father fig­ure for Julian. What role does genet­ics play in the par­ent-child relationships?

2. In a book about a writer, what effect does the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­po­nent have on the sto­ry? Julian’s desire to be a writer is a cat­a­lyst that dri­ves the nar­ra­tive. What does the nov­el say about the writer’s life?

3. As Julian tried to com­fort Mia when her moth­er was sick, Mia felt her heart beat against him like some­thing caged in, wings bat­ting, slap­ping against them­selves [p. 72].” What does this say about their rela­tion­ship, and how is it reflect­ed in their marriage?

4. Dis­cuss the mar­riage of Julian and Mia. How do they com­ple­ment each oth­er (or not)?

5. How much is Julian’s life ruled by the fol­low­ing idea: Julian already felt, moments after grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, that he was let­ting peo­ple down” [p. 93]? Con­sid­er which of Julian’s deci­sions are either pas­sive or made in order to please others.

6. Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing two quo­ta­tions about Mia: She felt sud­den­ly that they weren’t her friends, that despite all the time they’d spent togeth­er, they’d nev­er real­ly cared about her [p.85].” She felt des­per­ate for him to know her bet­ter, felt a con­vic­tion that despite hav­ing been with her for three years, he did­n’t appre­hend her at all” [p. 79]. Are Mia’s fears ratio­nal, or justified?

7. Mia and Julian were prompt­ed to get mar­ried because of her mom’s can­cer, and then Mia’s own can­cer scare seems to push them into the deci­sion to have chil­dren. Is this a good way to run a mar­riage? What is Henkin telling us about adult deci­sions and consequences?

8. Exam­ine the tra­jec­to­ry of Carter and Pilar’s rela­tion­ship. What does it say about them?

9. Dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between Carter and Julian. What does each of them bring to the friend­ship, and how do they affect each oth­er’s lives? Dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between Mia and Pilar. In what ways are both of these rela­tion­ships com­pet­i­tive? How are they each rivals?

10. The nov­el is struc­tured around place. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the col­lege town? How do the dif­fer­ent locales affect the couples?

11. How does the stress of choos­ing school­ing and careers affect these couples?

12. Issues of mon­ey come up between both of the cou­ples. What does the nov­el tell us about the role of mon­ey in mar­riages and in soci­ety? What role does class play in the char­ac­ters’ rela­tion­ships and careers?

13. At the end of the nov­el, Julian for­gives Carter. Do you agree with his decision?

14. Com­pare and con­trast all of the cou­ples in the nov­el (mar­ried and not). In total, what does the nov­el tell us about matrimony?

15. Nov­els about rela­tion­ships are usu­al­ly the ter­rain of women, but Mat­ri­mo­ny is writ­ten by a man. How much does the gen­der of the author influ­ence the narrative?

16. Mia is Jew­ish but only seems to grasp at it dur­ing cru­cial times. What is the role or impor­tance of reli­gion with these couples?

17. How does divorce play into the nov­el? Do you think it’s trau­mat­ic for chil­dren no mat­ter what age they are?

18. Dis­cuss the infi­deli­ties in the nov­el. What role does betray­al play with these char­ac­ters and in their marriages/​relationships?