Helene Dunbar by day is a marketing and communications manager for a Jewish non-profit in New York City. By night she writes about Irish traditional music for Irish Music Magazine and other publications.
Intermarried Life Under the Microscope
Review of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon, 2007).
Matrimony by Joshua Henkin is not a large book. It does not deal with events which form nations or with profound concepts of thought. Instead, it is a small slice of life, sandwiched between pieces of glass and looked at from every which way.
The book begins at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. It is, at first, a book about friendship and about writing, but it quickly shifts into something more. Julian Wainwright, a product of a wealthy Manhattan upbringing and Carter Heinz, a scholarship student who at the same time envies and is angered by Julian's seemingly easy life, bond over their frustrated aspirations to become writers.
These ambitions form one of the two pillars of the book. Julian becomes the more successful writer, publishing a few stories in Harper's but then floundering for the next decade on his novel. Carter, more driven by the idea of success than any creative muse, makes his millions in the Internet business, thus obtaining his life's goal of becoming wealthy.
It is Julian who, perhaps by nature of his wealth (and who thereby has the freedom to make more creative choices), devotes himself to the path of the struggling author. Likewise, it is Julian who devotes himself to winning the hand of a girl that they're both taken with--the book's second pillar--dubbed "Mia from Montreal".
Mia Mendelsohn is not only from Montreal. She is Jewish and in this case, her Jewishness is a factor that adds to her exoticness, just as her Canadian upbringing does--her parents settled in Montreal so that her father could escape the U.S. draft. She does, it is said, feel more discomfort with the American Thanksgiving than she does with Christmas because she participates in the latter's events "without resentment or regret." She is given a few funny lines that one would suspect that Henkin, who is the product of a semi-Orthodox upbringing, must himself have used. She describes her Hebrew school Passover pageant as "like the Christmas pageant but with the Ten Plagues."
As a child, Mia recounts flirting with Orthodoxy. Put off by the circus-like atmosphere of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties she attends, and aware that there must be more to Judaism than that, she falls temporarily under the sway of an Orthodox rabbi but her religious devotion only lasts a year.
Mia is the only character whose religious identity is noted. And when she and Julian become involved, there is no discussion between them or from their families about their religious differences. When they do marry, Mia's mother is dying of breast cancer and although we are given to think that the marriage would have occurred regardless, this coming tragedy accelerates the union.
The couple embarks on a life more normal than most authors choose to give their characters. Mia becomes a therapist; Julian tries again and again to make a career of writing, teaching all the while as do so many aspiring writers; his parents split up; he comes to terms with his wealthy legacy. Betrayals are uncovered, they split up and reunite, Julian remains in touch with Carter. The move to various college towns and he tries his hand at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Were it not for Henkin's delicate style of writing, and the fact that the characters, while not overly interesting, are quite likeable, it would be easy for a reader to turn away. There is good reason why writing instructors teach budding authors not to make their characters authors. The process of writing is not as interesting as the finished product and watching Julian work--or try to--does little to move the book forward.
Instead, Mia, the therapist full of self-aware insights, forms the emotional center of this novel and moves it forward as she moves their relationship forward.
Through it all though, particularly their attempts to have a child, their religious differences never come up. It seemed strange that she was given this heritage but it never was discussed in any meaningful way between them. There is no talk about how to celebrate the holidays or whether their sons would be circumcised. Why then even make her Jewish?
Henkin's Matrimony is a good but uneventful read that focuses on the day-to-day details that are noticed more in hindsight than at the time. Read it to get a feel for these very real characters but not for any insight into navigating the paths of an interfaith relationship.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.