From the moment he was born, Julian Wainwright has lived a life of Waspy privilege. The son of a Yale-educated investment banker, he grew up in a huge apartment on Sutton Place, high above the East River, and attended a tony Manhattan private school. Yet, more than anything, he wants to get out-out from under his parents' influence, off to Graymont College, in western Massachusetts, where he hopes to become a writer.
When he arrives, in the fall of 1986, Julian meets Carter Heinz, a scholarship student from California with whom he develops a strong but ambivalent friendship. Carter's mother, desperate to save money for his college education, used to buy him reversible clothing, figuring she was getting two items for the price of one. Now, spending time with Julian, Carter seethes with resentment. He swears he will grow up to be wealthy-wealthier, even, than Julian himself.
Then, one day, flipping through the college facebook, Julian and Carter see a photo of Mia Mendelsohn. Mia from Montreal, they call her. Beautiful, Jewish, the daughter of a physics professor at McGill, Mia is-Julian and Carter agree-dreamy, urbane, stylish, refined.
But Julian gets to Mia first, meeting her by chance in the college laundry room. Soon they begin a love affair that-spurred on by family tragedy-will carry them to graduation and beyond, taking them through several college towns, over the next ten years. Then Carter reappears, working for an Internet company in California, and he throws everyone's life into turmoil: Julian's, Mia's, his own.
Starting at the height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium, Matrimony is about love and friendship, about money and ambition, desire and tensions of faith. It asks what happens to a marriage when it is confronted by betrayal and the specter of mortality. What happens when people marry younger than they'd expected? Can love endure the passing of time?
In its emotional honesty, its luminous prose, its generosity and wry wit, Matrimony is a beautifully detailed portrait of what it means to share a life with someone-to do it when you're young, and to try to do it afresh on the brink of middle age.
In 1987, Manhattan-reared hothouse flower Julian Wainwright matriculates at the alternative Graymont College for the express purposes of attending Professor Stephen Chesterfield's exclusive fiction writing workshop. As Chesterfield dryly infuses his writing wisdom, Julian befriends the cocky, aloof, lesser-born Carter Heinz when they are the only two to whom Chesterfield gives the nod. Carter soon meets Pilar in the cafeteria; Julian meets Mia in the laundry room. Carter's simmering class resentment of Julian surfaces. Senior year finds the two couples living next door to one another and plotting their futures. Henkin (Swimming Across the Hudson) subsequently follows the lovers for the next 15 years through countless college towns, family dramas, failed literary projects and the dot-com boom. Many scenes are too long, and never get below the surface of the cast, particularly wannabe-litterateur Julian. But for a book called Matrimony, Henkin offers surprisingly little about Julian and Mia's marriage, so when big confrontations do arrive, they quickly slide into melodrama. By then, lines like But I don't want to get my M.F.A. Can't you understand that? I've already been in enough writing workshops will have cleared the classroom. (Oct.)
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August 25, 2008
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Excerpt from Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
"Out! Out! Out!" The first words Julian Wainwright ever spoke, according to his father, Richard Wainwright III, graduate of Yale and grand lubricator of the economic machinery, and Julian's mother, Constance Wainwright, Wellesley graduate and descendant of a long family of Pennsylvania Republicans. Julian, the first Wainwright in four generations to be given his own Christian name. Julian's father would have liked another Richard Wainwright, but Julian's mother was a persistent woman and she believed a child of hers was entitled to his own identity and therefore his own name. And so, at fifteen months, in a car ride back from Martha's Vineyard, Julian, who until then had not said a word and had given his parents every reason to think language would come slowly to him, uttered these words in rapid succession: "Out! Out! Out!" Not once, not twice, but repeatedly, until the words became a chant and it was obvious that for reasons all his own he didn't want to return to New York City, to his parents' apartment on Sutton Place.
Now, seventeen years later, he had gotten his wish. It was 1986, and he was starting his freshman year at Graymont College, a small liberal arts school in Northington, Massachusetts, two hours west of Boston. An alternative school, according to the Graymont brochure, on whose cover there appeared a picture of Rousseau sitting next to a cow. Henri Rousseau? Jean-Jacques Rousseau? The students didn't know, and they didn't seem to care. The only thing that mattered was that they were at Graymont, in the middle of whose campus stood a shanty protesting college investments in South Africa, a shanty so large it could fit practically the whole student body inside it. According to one upper-class math major, more nights per capita had been spent sleeping inside the shanty at Graymont than in any other college shanty in the United States.
At Graymont, if you wanted, you could receive comments from your professors instead of grades, and on the application for admission there was a "creative expression" section that, according to rumor, one successful applicant had completed by baking a chocolate cake. "Hash brownies!" a student said. "The guy got the dean of admissions stoned!"
Julian's own creative expression section took the form of a short story he'd written. At thirteen, he'd met his hero, John Cheever, standing on the steps of the 92nd Street Y, and ever since then, ever since he'd gotten John Cheever's autograph, Julian had known he was going to be a writer.
But that would come later, once classes had begun. Right now, Julian waited in his dorm room to greet his new roommate, a young man from New Jersey who had assured him over the telephone that he was bringing the largest stereo system Julian had ever seen. It was going to take the two of them to carry it up the stairs.
Julian's roommate was right. The promised stereo system, when it was delivered, looked like an intercontinental ballistic missile. It was a stereo system paid for by Ronald Reagan and built by the United States Pentagon and directed at Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Politburo, a stereo system that could blow the Russians out of the sky and turn them into a mushroom cloud.
Wandering about the room, trailing wire behind him, Julian's roommate was contemplating where to put his electric guitar, his boom box, his microwave, his toaster oven; he was, Julian thought, a tangle of electricity. "This school is wild," his roommate said. "Some of the guys on campus wear skirts."
"They're hoping to transcend the boundaries of gender. Mostly they're just trying to get laid. There are naked parties here. People come to them without any clothes on."
"In the winter, I guess, they wear shoes and socks. It gets pretty cold here." Julian's roommate was dark-haired and thickset, and he had brought with him piles of pressed shirts and trousers, each of them separated from the others by a white piece of tissue paper, as if they had come directly from the dry cleaner. He was hanging them up now, smoothing them out with his hand. "You think those guys pee in the shower?"
"Jared and Hartley. Bill. Stefan." Julian's roommate gestured to the room down the hall. "Hartley's the kind of guy who pees in the shower."
In the bathroom now, Julian glanced warily at the showers. There were two stalls for six guys, each with a white piece of plastic hanging down from the rod but not quite reaching the floor. "It's bad enough to pee in your own shower," his roommate said. "But in a communal shower?" He looked up at Julian. "You don't pee in the shower, do you?"
"No," Julian said. From time to time he had. Didn't everyone?
"I had this roommate in prep school who peed in the sink." "You didn't," Julian said.
"Swear to God. When I was using the bathroom and he needed to go, he'd just climb up on the sink and pee in it."