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This book club provided an opportunity to discuss books with authors from 2009 - 2013. I like to think we were a group of daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, well... women finding time to meet while juggling daily life.

I hope you enjoy exploring The Manic Mommies Book Club Archives. We read 46 books over the years, with audio or written author discussions for each book read documented on this blog.

~ with kindness & gratitude, Mari

The Life Room, Discussion begins April 22


Our next MMBC selection is The Life Room, written by Jill Bialosky. A story about a women traveling to Paris to present a paper on Anna Karenina. While in Paris she runs into an old friend and history resurfaces (see synopsis below).

I haven’t read the book yet but post my review in the next few weeks. I was pleased to see The Life room is a Reading Group Choices selection for March. There is a lot of buzz around this book, our timing is perfect!

Discussion will begin April 22 under the Big Tent.

Here are the links to a few articles worth reading: Washington Post, NY Times Review

Used copies at Amazon for under $1.00!

Author Q&A:
Tell us a little about yourself (biography): I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up in the suburbs and my memories are of snow filled winters and long, endless summers. As a young girl I connected with books to quench my curiosity and curb my loneliness and wished one day to be a poet and novelist. I was enamored by the experience of reading a novel or a poem and entering an entirely foreign new world. I was fortunate enough to attend a poetry workshop at Ohio University as an undergraduate and to have studied with a poet who encouraged me to find my own voice. Ever since I have had a love affair with the written word.

What are you reading now? Now I am reading A Room With a View by EM Forester, a wonderful novel about the unknowable self revealed through an encounter in Italy. I just finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a devastating portrait of a marriage. And by my bedside are many volumes of poetry I turn to again and again.

Customer reviews from Amazon:
Enchanting: The Life Room is a captivating read. The text is thoughtfully and beautifully written, bringing the novel's main character to life in the readers mind where she will stay long after the book is closed.

"Were we all, we who lived deeply, doomed?": With Tolstoy's tortured Anna Karenina as subtext, literature professor Eleanor Cahn leaves her beloved family in New York for a ten day conference in Paris where she has been asked to give a paper. Conflicted about the trip, Eleanor grants herself permission to indulge in the professional aspect of her life, forever at war with the more traditional...

Format: Hardcover (337 pages), paperback (352 pages)

Synopsis:
Eleanor Cahn is a professor of literature, the wife of a preeminent cardiac surgeon, and a devoted mother. But on a trip to Paris to present a paper on Anna Karenina, Eleanor re-connects with Stephen—a childhood friend with whom she has had a complicated relationship—that forces her to realize that she has suppressed her passionate self for years. As the novel unfolds, we learn of her hidden erotic past: with alluring, elusive Stephen; with ethereal William, her high school boyfriend; with married, egotistical Adam, the painter who initiated her into the intimacies of the "life room," where the artist’s model sometimes becomes muse; and with loyal, steady Michael, her husband. On her return to New York, Eleanor and Stephen’s charged attraction takes on a life of its own and threatens to destroy everything she has.

Jill Bialosky has created a fresh, piercingly real heroine who struggles with the spiritual questions and dilemmas of our time and, like Tolstoy’s immortal Anna Karenina, must choose between desire and responsibility.

MMBC: Matrimony Discussion


Originally posted in the Big Tent.... view comments for full conversation.

Today we start discussing ‘Matrimony’. I encourage everyone to visit the MMBC Blog to read the Q&A with Josh Henkin. His answers may spark a discussion topic for you, or maybe another question to ask everyone. This dialog is meant to be a discussion between friends – Let’s keep the discussion causal and hopefully we learning something new about each other along the way.

Below you will find 8 questions to help with the dialog. You don’t have to answer all of them; they are here to spark conversation:

1. What was your overall view of the book? Did you enjoy it?

2. Did you have a favorite character (include why you liked the character)?

3. Did you have a favorite part in the book?

4. Illness (page 70): I really enjoyed a lot of the dialog in the book, Mia says “let her mother live till seventy”. I said this when my mom was diagnosed cancer, thinking about your family/friends diagnosed with a life threatening disease…did this help you relate to Mia as a character? Then Mia is diagnosed with cancer towards the end of the book, her decisions might surprise some of us. How would you have handled the situation (Julian and Mia end up having a child, she postpones the decision for mastectomy. Julian mentions they may try for another child so she can breast feed. The future is uncertain)?

5. Goals (page 93): Julian wanted to publish his novel by 25 and was regretting saying this out loud. Thinking back to your young 20’s, do you have any goals that you haven’t achieved that you wish did? If yes, can you still achieve them?

6. Marriage (page 121) – “the bad days are investments in the good ones” – Julian and Mia are starting to have relationship struggles. Were you able to relate to their marriage?

7. Friendship and Infidelity (page 156) – Carter admits to sleeping with Mia spring of their senior year. Julian almost under reacts but this leads to their separation – how did you reach to reading this? Did you think Carter would re-enter the novel? Why? Were you surprised by Julian’s reaction/conversation with Mia?

8. Divorce (page 195) – Julian’s mom calls and tells him “Dad’s gone. He left me” - dealing with parents divorcing can be hard for a grown child. As Julian has a family of his own, how do you think this will impact his life?

Josh Henkin Answers our questions


Thank you Josh for answering our questions!

Our discussion begins Weds under the Big Tent – I will post questions for us to discuss Wednesday morning. In talking with many of you offline, I expect we will have a lot to share/discuss.

Check back Wednesday!

Julian is very well written and a believable character, I am interested to know if there is crossover from the author to Julian, or if Julian is based on a few people in his life.
Thanks for the question—for all the questions that follow. They’re great, and I’m looking forward to answering them. And thanks more generally for participating in the Manic Mommies discussion of MATRIMONY. I’m delighted to be a part of it.

People tend to assume that if I’m anyone in MATRIMONY I must be Julian. I’m a writer, and he’s a writer; I grew up in New York, and he grew up in New York; my name begins with a “J,” and so does his. But if anything, I’m probably more similar to Mia than to Julian. I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish, and we’re both the children of professors. In terms of the worlds they come from, Mia’s world is much more familiar to me than Julian’s is. It’s true that MATRIMONY is in part about the writing life, and since I’m a writer, in some vague way some of that material is borrowed from my own like. And I do think almost any writer will tell you that writing is often terrifying. No matter how much success you’ve had, the fraud police is always hovering over you, and you don’t know whether you’ll be able to do it again. The page is just as blank every time you sit down. All that said, Julian’s struggles are often quite different from my own. Both his book and mine took many years to write ( I worked on MATRIMONY for ten years and threw out more than three thousand pages), but there are some key differences. Julian had long periods of writer’s block. I never had writer’s block; I just wrote a lot of really bad pages that I had the good sense to throw out.

In the more general sense, MATRIMONY is not autobiographical in any obvious way. The only character based on a real character is the dog, who’s a dead ringer for my wife’s and my dog (except that our dog is a golden retriever and female and Cooper is a Labrador retriever and male). All the other mammals in the book are invented. I didn’t meet my wife in college, her mother didn’t die of breast cancer, she didn’t cheat on me with my best friend (of if she did, she hasn’t told me yet!), and, alas, I’m not nearly as wealthy as Julian is.

Did you meet your wife in college? This is so well written – my story is similar and you captured the aches and pains of transitioning from student to adulthood so well. The phrase on page 121 is perfect, “the bad days are investments in the good ones”.
Thank you. I’m glad the book rang true to you. I didn’t meet my wife till quite a number of years after college. But college life in general feels alive to me, in large part, I suspect, because I teach college students and graduate students and have spent many years in college towns—Cambridge, Mass; Berkeley; Ann Arbor. And though I grew up in New York City, which certainly isn’t a college town, my father taught for years at Columbia Law School, and we lived in Columbia housing in Morningside Height, so in a way I grew up in a university oasis even while living in a huge city.

Why did you choose to fold breast cancer into the story versus another disease/illness? Why specifically Ashkenazi Jewish Breast Cancer (BRCA1/BRCA2) - many of us are touched by breast cancer, it’s important to be informed.
This is one of those questions where I have to try to sound less stupid than I feel. Writing fiction—at least the first draft of writing fiction—is much more like a dream state than anything else. You proceed subconsciously. You don’t know why you’re writing what you’re writing. You just sit down to write. When I started MATRIMONY I was single, living in Ann Arbor, and when I finished it, ten years later, I was married, with two daughters, living in Brooklyn. So a lot changed in my life during that time. But I guess I don’t believe that a writer sits down to write a particular novel. At least I don’t. I just sit down to write, and like life itself, you look back ten years later and realize this is what you did. When I started MATRIMONY, I thought it was about a love relationship and that it was taking place at a college reunion. Well, it is, in fact, about a love relationship, but it’s about other things too, and there is a college reunion in the book, but that doesn’t come till around page 270 and it lasts for all of 6 pages. So pretty early on it became clear to me that I didn’t have a clue. Which is how it should be. When a writer has too much of a clue, that’s a sign of trouble.

In terms of breast cancer specifically, everyone knows someone who’s been touched by it, and I do too, but I’ve been fortunate not to have been touched too directly and painfully by it. My mother-in-law did in fact have breast cancer, but that was years ago, before I’d even met my wife, and my mother-in-law, thankfully, is fine. I think I came at breast cancer, and certainly at the BRCA genes, indirectly, in that (and again, I’m speculating here; I proceed much more intuitively than any answer I give would suggest) I was interested in Mia and Olivia’s relationship and how two sisters could share genes and an environment and end up so different. This is a question that we all think about to one degree or another—certainly anyone who has siblings or children. Why are siblings so often so different from each other? Much of it has to do with hardwiring, I suspect, but there’s also the fact that no parent is the same parent to each of their kids. Birth order, for instance, is very important, and there are many other factors as well. In Mia and Olivia’s case, there’s the fact that Mia is the better student and so she has both the privilege and the burden of her father’s greater attention, whereas Olivia flies more under the radar screen. And they experience their mother’s illness differently in that Olivia was still living at home and Mia was already off at college when their mother got sick. At some point, I read an op ed piece in the New York Times written by a woman whose family had had a lot of breast cancer and who tested positive for the gene and ended up having a protective double mastectomy, but her sister refused to test. That op ed got me thinking. I started to imagine who those two sisters might be.

Shortly after Mia learns that her mother has breast cancer she expresses this thought, (page 71) “let her mother live till seventy” – I said this when my mom was diagnosed! Did you find in your research that daughter’s make comments like this or is this coincidence?
I actually did very limited research about breast cancer or about anything else. I hate doing research. That’s one of the reasons I write fiction—I get to make things up! I obviously had to do a little research, since I don’t have the statistics about the breast cancer gene at my fingertips. But you’d be surprised how little research I did, beyond the research that any fiction writer is always doing—being alert and engaged and curious (curiosity may be the single most important trait in a fiction writer), being out in the world, thinking about internal life and what motivates people.

The sister relationship between Mia and Olivia seemed so strained, even after the baby I expected a mention of Olivia coming around, being an aunt, godmother, something. I Found it interesting that it never really seemed repaired, yet the cause of the strain seemed exaggerated a bit on Olivia's part. Jealousy, selfishness, not important?
It’s certainly important, but I think it’s hard to pinpoint the reason. To me, that’s the wonderful thing about fiction—it’s not about reasons; it’s about making characters feel true and complex. It’s about what’s irreducible, and reasons in the narrow sense tend to reduce things. One can certainly speculate, as I did above, about some of the reasons Mia and Olivia are as different as they are, but I think, ultimately, it remains a mystery, as so much in life does. Fiction, then, is about depicting in as true a way as possible life’s mysteries. I see Mia and Olivia as wanting to be close but not knowing how to. They have the best intentions, but in a way it seems that they’re not meant to be close. They live in the same city for many years (it’s one of the reasons Mia moved to New York) and end up spending far less time together than they expected. They exist in such different worlds and seem to have trouble transcending those boundaries. For some people, big life events, both tragic ones and happy ones, can bring siblings together, and there are certainly plenty of both kinds of events in MATRIMONY. But in this case, at least, it didn’t happen, and I certainly know of siblings in real life where such events don’t end up bridging the gap. Who knows why. It’s just the way things work out in certain circumstances with certain people, and fiction is always about certain circumstances and certain people. It’s always about the particular, not about the general.

Julian's reaction to Carter and Mia sleeping together--how much of his reaction was compounded by the feeling of underlying resentment that he went to Michigan for her and the betrayal from Mia and Carter was just the icing on the cake to release him from that suffocation?
That’s a very astute point you make. A lot of book group members (I’ve now talked to over a hundred book groups that have been discussing MATRIMONY!) ask me why Julian left Mia over something that happened nine years earlier, when they weren’t yet married (they were engaged) and when Mia was in a bad way, besides (her mother was dying). But I agree—I see it much more as the icing on the cake. It’s important to remember that Julian’s leaving Mia after finding out that she slept with Carter comes in the context of some real difficulties in their marriage. To me, the central incident in the book—the incident that changes everything—is Mia’s mother’s death. Were it not for Mia’s mother’s having gotten sick, not only would Julian and Mia not have gotten married when they did, but I suspect they might never have gotten married at all. I don’t for a second doubt that they love each other, but one of the things that MATRIMONY illustrates is how big a role coincidence plays in our lives, how much has to do with timing.

Julian and Mia go to college in the late 80s/early 90s at a school based loosely on Hampshire College. These are people who culturally, demographically, generationally don’t get married at 22. Their grandparents got married at 22, maybe their parents did, but they certainly don’t. Were it not for Mia’s mother’s death, I suspect Julian and Mia would have stayed together for another year or so and then drifted apart—not because they don’t love each other but because that’s what generally happens to people of their age and background.

But circumstances intervene to make them marry, and everything follows from that. To be 23 and married in a place like Ann Arbor is to seem—and I don’t exaggerate; I lived in Ann Arbor at more or less Julian and Mia’s age—like a freak. Julian and Mia are acutely aware of this fact, and Mia, at least, is quite uncomfortable about it. She at first doesn’t tell her friends that she’s married, and she doesn’t want to live in an expensive apartment because she doesn’t wish to be seen as marrying rich. There are core tensions brewing between the two of them. That dinner party scene, though it may not be essential in terms of the plot of the novel, is essential to the feel of the book—the way Julian feels like an outsider looking in. This is how many non-university-affiliated spouses feel in college towns: like a third wheel.

There are tensions, too, over Julian’s work. Mia wants him to go to law school, to have a “real” job; she’s discovered that being the wife of a writer is not what she envisioned. Julian bridles under her pressure and thinks she doesn’t have faith in him as a writer. He feels dissatisfied and unappreciated; he gets involved in this flirtation with Trilby.

Mia, for her part, feels that something has gone wrong in their marriage and she can’t put her finger on it. She senses that the way she and Julian got married (shotgun) somehow jinxed them. (Although this is part of a longer discussion, it gets at the reason why I didn’t write the actual wedding scene into the book. The characters themselves—Mia, certainly—wanted to get the wedding over with, almost as if it didn’t happen, and so this is a case in which form reflects content.) Later, looking back at the wedding, Mia feels that the gifts are tainted, linked as they are to her mother’s death (it’s why she keeps them in the closet). The whole wedding is a haze to her—everything from that year is. It’s as if none of it happened, which is why she begins to wonder whether she made the right decision in wearing a red dress instead of a traditional wedding gown, in being so determined not to treat the wedding as a real celebration. It’s also why, after the dinner party, she gets down on her knees and actually proposes to Julian several years after the fact. She feels that something has gone wrong, and she wants, retroactively, to correct it, but she senses that it’s not possible.

It’s in this context that Julian finds out that Mia slept with Carter, and though this is the precipitating event in their break-up, it’s important to keep in mind all the background information I’ve been alluding to. When Julian tells Mia what he’s found out, she says, “It was nine years ago. My mother was dying. Doesn’t that count for anything?” Although Julian doesn’t say this, what he thinks is: Doesn’t anything but that count for anything? He and Mia got married because Mia’s mother was dying. They stayed in Northington for an extra year because Mia’s mother had died. They moved to Ann Arbor for Mia’s career (Mia, who’s been so determined not to repeat her mother’s mistake of abandoning her career and following her husband, has, in a way, reversed things on Julian, such that he’s always the one following her.), and at a certain point Julian thinks: enough already.

It’s true that the incident with Carter took place nine years ago, but Julian and Mia were engaged at the time, she slept with his best friend, there have been all these sacrifices he’s made since then, and he basically feels that if he knew then what he knows now he and Mia wouldn’t have gotten married. He looks at everything that’s happened since then in a completely different light. It’s true they could have hashed it out, could have gone to counseling, and Mia certainly would have been willing to (she doesn’t propose it because she’s in too much of a state of shock about what’s happened), but from Julian’s perspective there isn’t anything to talk about because what he needs—what they both need—is to be alone for a while. These are people who married too young, who never got the chance to grow up on their own.

It’s only once they’ve been alone for 20 months that they both realize they still love each other (They’ve really realized it all along, of course; Mia never fell out of love with Julian—she didn’t want him to leave—and Julian, despite going out with other women, despite moving to Iowa for the sole purpose of trying to put some distance between him and Mia—he was never really interested in going to the Writers Workshop; it was the only way he could find to leave Ann Arbor—discovers that he can’t stop thinking about her.) And then Julian’s parents split up, and this rattles him much more than he thought it would (He never was that close to his parents, and he always knew they had a bad marriage, but he finds, as many adult children whose parents get divorced do, that seeing your parents split up, even when you’re older, can be a quite earth-rattling experience), and the person he most wants to talk to, to be with, is Mia. He thinks, Why am I turning this into a matter of pride, when I still love her and belong with her? But this is not a recognition he could have come to 20 months earlier. Time had to pass. Both he and Mia needed to be on their own for a while.

Now, I’m not trying to defend/support what Julian does, or what Mia does. That’s not my task. My task is to be true to my characters—to write them in a way that’s convincing—that’s true to who they are. And I think Julian’s decision to leave in the way he does is true to who he is. (In addition to everything else I’ve mentioned, Julian is a pretty stubborn guy. You don’t spend fifteen years writing a novel without being stubborn.) Some people might not like what he does, and some people might not like what Mia does (I’ve heard lots of arguments on both sides), and certainly plenty of people would behave differently. But since I’m a novelist, my task isn’t to be concerned about how other people behave; I need to be concerned only about how my characters behave.

Do you see Julian and Henry staying in contact with each other after the book ends?
Good question. It’s hard to know. I think they have real affection for each other, but for Julian, at least, going to Iowa proved to be a mistake, and I think he looks back at his time there as a blip. So it wouldn’t surprise me if he and Henry didn’t stay in touch—certainly not in close touch—after the book ends, and my sense is that by the end of the book they’ve already fallen out of touch to a large extent. On the other hand, if Henry, like Julian, ends up having some success as a writer, they might end up seeing each other in a professional context, at writers conferences and the like, and that could help rekindle the friendship.

A curiosity question for the author: Is there a connection to the west coast? Berkeley in his book coming out and Marin county/SF/east bay/south bay references in Matrimony.
Yes, I lived in the Bay area (Berkeley and San Francisco) for four years after I graduated from college, and my brother has been living in San Francisco for the last twenty years, so I get out there periodically to visit. I tend to write about places I know. I have no problem imagining people I’ve never met, but I find location harder to make up. I’ve done it, and I’ll do it again, but I often fall back on the cities and towns that are familiar to me. Berkeley certainly is one of them, and I lived in Berkeley at formative time in my life. It was right after college, the first time I was really living alone. It was also when I started to write fiction.

Thank you again for your questions—and thanks to all of you for participating in the MATRIMONY discussion, and to Mari, especially, for setting it up. It’s been a real delight for me. If you have any further questions, you can contact me directly at Jhenkin@SLC.edu and I’ll do my best to answer them. And for those of you who are in real-life book clubs or know people who are, I am always available for phone chats, so I hope you’ll let your book clubs know. Thanks, finally, for reading MATRIMONY and thinking so carefully about it. It means a lot to me—and it means a lot in general to writers to have people take their work seriously. In any case, I hope you’ll spread the word to others.