Though still a bit sleepy from my late night out last evening, I’m filled with a rosy glow. I love weddings, and the young couple whose marriage ceremony I attended last night hold a special place in my heart. Their wedding couldn’t have been more beautiful – a combination Christian and Jewish ceremony, which was assembled so thoughtfully and carefully, with every detail lovingly attended to. The men wore white dinner jackets, the attendants dark red gowns, and red roses festooned the bouquets and centerpieces. It was quiet elegance in look, and in tone, and the room was permeated with joy and love.
Yet this young couple has already suffered tragedies together – the death by suicide of the groom’s only brother, the bride’s father leaving her mother and never returning. They come to each other with deep scars in their young hearts, hoping their love will help heal these broken places.
So I can’t help but think about Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn, the couple at the center of Joshua Henkin’s novel, Matrimony. For this is a couple with scars as well, and Henkin’s telling of their love/life story is filled with compassion, concern, and deep understanding.
Julian and Mia first meet in 1986, at the small New England college where Julian has gone to hone his writing skills. They fall hard and fast into love, the kind of heady experience only newly independent teenagers can understand.
Their first week together, Julian and Mia stopped sleeping. They were coasting on adrenaline, Mia said.
“On libido,” said Julian.
Banished from his room that first night, Julian’s roomate hadn’t come back the second or third. Mia felt bad for Julian’s roomate, but not so bad, she told Julian, as to want him to return. She and Julian were alone, and they made love where they wanted to, in Julian’s bedroom, in the common room; they even made love on Julian’s roomate’s beanbag chair. To be nineteen and making love wherever you wished; this, Julian thought, was how a person should live.”
Of course, real life intervenes in several ways, testing their commmittment to each other, to their chosen careers, and to the institution of matrimony. Reading the novel, I felt a bit like a benevolent parent, smiling fondly on occasion and shaking my head in dismay on others. For both of them have a lot of growing up to do, and the novel follows them through the trajectory of their marriage with all the caring and concern of a mother hen, shepherding her flock through the field.
Henkin writes with a quiet, introspective reserve, but the novel is filled with the kinds of details that bring the characters and their situations to life. I particularly enjoyed the passages about Ann Arbor, where the couple lives following their graduation from college, for they brought fond memories of the times I spent walking those very streets.
He was on campus now, crossing the diag. Ahead of him lay East University, Church Street, Forest Avenue, and Washtenaw; to the south were Monroe, then Hill and Packard. He knew all the street names in town, even the obscure ones, the little cul-de-sacs where he rarely had reason to go, for when he and Mia moved here he’d walked purposefully through town memorizing the street names.
Julian and Mia are also finding their way into their chosen careers – Mia as a pycologist, and Julian (not surprisingly) as a novelist. Having eschewed his father’s success in banking, Julian has struck out as an artist, hopeful of gaining some momentous attention from them and from the world.
When people asked him why he wrote he told them the truth: because he had to. And no matter what Mia said, he thought if he were successful he’d be happy, for there was a sorrow so deep in him he couldn’t excavate it and he believed he could uproot it only with acclaim.
Nearly a generation separates me from Julian and Mia Wainwright, but there is a timelessness to their story which makes me identify immediately with their emotions and care about their lives. Their circumstances are not terribly unusual or exciting, which is exactly the reason they are so touching – because their lives could easily belong to any one of us. And once I began reading their story, I found myself turning the pages almost breathlessly, waiting to see what would happen next.
Matrimony is a story of love, a story of marriage, but most of all a story about life, and the ways it becomes meaningful when shared with another person.
Of course, matrimony always involves gifts, and I have one for you *smiles*. If you’d like to read Matrimony yourself, or perhaps give a copy to your favorite newlyweds, leave a comment here for an oppoturnity to recieve an autographed copy of the recently released paperback edition. Comments on this post will close on October 9, 2008, and a winner will be selected at random on October 10, 2008.