'Matrimony' asks: Is it harder to write or to wed?

Neither is easy, suggests Joshua Henkin in his thoughtful new novel about a young husband in a writer's workshop

Call it the marriage penalty. But this one doesn't come courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

It is a truism universally acknowledged that nothing kills off a fictional romance faster than marriage. Even Jane Austen faded to black after her heroines were safely hitched – there were no scenes of Elizabeth and Darcy arguing about the bills or whose turn it was to pick up little Fitzwilliam Jr. from preschool.

Married couples tend to be either comically miserable or frankly at war, a la James Thurber or Edward Albee, or they're parents, and the mess they're making of that job is the focus of the novel. Or, they're the token married couple who squabble cutely in the corner, away from the action.

Enter Joshua Henkin, whose quiet, thoughtful novel Matrimony takes a serious look at the "ties that bind and gag," as Erma Bombeck put it. Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn meet in college and end up getting married their senior year, after Mia's mom is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The book follows the couple over 20 years – chronicling their insecurities, betrayals, and griefs, while including the leavening faith that allows two people to commit, and recommit, to each other. Henkin makes things harder for himself by creating characters with lives of privilege, but he credibly shows that money and education can't absolve anyone from pain.

While its title and plot focus on a union of hearts, "Matrimony" actually struck me as being almost as much about writing. About two-thirds of the way through "Matrimony," Julian utters what could be considered the war cry of the novel (if it weren't too well-mannered to shout), as he prepares to have yet another story shredded by his colleagues at the Iowa Writer's Workshop: "The story was quiet; all his work was. Perhaps it was a matter of differing aesthetics. There had emerged in American fiction a strain of excess, he believed, a group of knowing authors whose every sentence seemed to shout, 'Look how smart I am.' He had nothing against muscular prose; it was the flexing of those muscles that he objected to, and, along with it, a disregard for character, which, for him, was what fiction was about."

This paragraph alone is enough to endear Henkin to a reader (or, at least, to this reader). We're told that Julian's hero is short-story writer John Cheever; one suspects he is Henkin's as well.

In addition to Mia, Julian finds the other great friend of his life at college. He and Carter Heinz meet in the writing class of Professor Stephen Chesterfield. Actually, it's called the Fiction Writing Workshop, but "Professor Chesterfield hated the word 'workshop,' which sounded like a church meeting, hated it, especially, as a verb ('Will my story be workshopped next time, Professor Chesterfield?'), the use of which was grounds of expulsion from his class." He promptly declares their writing sophomoric and pusillanimous, respectively, and says they're the only two students with any talent at all.

Chesterfield is a tour de force immediately recognizable to anyone who's survived a college fiction writing course – right down to the contempt for grades and the deal with Hollywood that went sour. Over the course of the year, he issues 117 commandments on writing that range from "Thou shalt not use the word 'kerplunk' " to "Thou shalt not utter the phrase 'show, don't tell' when discussing one another's short stories." Any student who can correctly use a semicolon gets an automatic A in the class. ("It's been my experience," Professor Chesterfield said, "that the average college student thinks of the semicolon as a very large comma.") I fell in love immediately.

Carter and Mia were a harder sell – Carter, in particular. He and Julian talk about being best friends a lot, but they don't really feel like friends, so when Carter betrays Julian down the road, it elicits barely a shrug from the reader. Julian's essential niceness – he's kind to dogs and immigrant grocers – and his desire to earn his way, help overcome the immediate distrust of those of us, like Carter, who were one student loan away from community college. Plus, Julian's insecurity is immediately familiar to anyone who's ever penned anything longer than a Christmas card. Apparently, he either read too much Hemingway or watched "Auntie Mame" one too many times. "He believed a writer was supposed 'to live,' which in his mind meant 'to do manual labor,' to work on a construction crew or on a fishing boat and get up before dawn to write. The problem was, he didn't have much experience with manual labor and, if he was honest with himself, he wasn't good at it."

While neither takes the muscles of a longshoreman, both writing and marriage qualify as hard work. And it turns out Julian may have more of an aptitude for perseverance than he thinks.

"Matrimony" also dissects the marriages of both Mia's and Julian's parents, Carter and his college girlfriend, and the long-term affair Mia's sister has with a married man. None are played for laughs, but there aren't any rose petals or serenading violins either. The varied shades help round out a portrait of a rather maligned institution, and suggest that Henkin, as well as Julian, took Chesterfield's advice to heart: "Professor Chesterfield used to say that everyone at college either writes what they know, which is a transcript of Friday night's keg party, or what they don't know, which is Martians? Well, according to him, you should write what you know about what you don't know or what you don't know about what you know. Keep it close enough to home that your heart is in it but far enough away that the imagination can take over."

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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