4.5 out of 5: Matrimony defies easy description. In the simplest sense, the book is about two couples who meet in college and grow into middle age. It’s also about writing, sickness, friendship, and betrayal. Perhaps the best way to describe this book is as a delicate examination of what it means to be married. Henkin’s characters—Julian, Mia, Carter, and Pilar—are interesting as individuals, but Matrimony is really about what happens in the space between these characters. By stringing together seemingly insignificant interactions, Henkin captures the essence of his characters’ relationships. Rather than attempting to explain Julian’s and Mia’s intimacy, for example, Henkin gives us a scene like this one:
In bed at night, they read novels to each other, and once, when Mia had the late shift and wasn’t coming home until after he went to sleep, Julian called the restaurant and read to her over the telephone. Mia laughed, pretending she was writing down a take-out order, but when her boss began to stare at her she said she had to go.The cumulative result of such scenes is a highly believable and sensitive rendering of the relationship between spouses.
Henkin’s well-crafted prose nicely complements the story, its unobtrusiveness supporting the purity and simplicity of Henkin’s deeper message. In a statement that must be autobiographical, one of Henkin’s characters—Julian—describes his view of fiction:
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.Like for Julian, fiction is about characters for Henkin. By the end of Matrimony, I liked these characters and cared about them, particularly Julian and Mia. I continue to have fond recollections of them weeks after finishing the book.
If Matrimony has a weakness, it’s the ending. For a book that isn’t much about plot, the ending is too neat and feels a bit contrived and unnatural given all that has come before. I would’ve preferred the book to end with more ambiguity, but this is a small complaint. Matrimony is a masterful accomplishment, and I highly recommend it.