Life and marriage by the rules

novel | Matrimony, By Joshua Henkin, Pantheon, $23.95, 304 pages

I went to a small liberal arts college in an idyllic setting during the mid-1980s. And it was perfect. I loved everything about it, from the collective nonstop intellectual pursuit to the collective nonstop interpersonal drama. It was perfect then and it remains perfect now even after adulthood has allowed me to reflect on the self-important, self-absorbed, shrill, privileged and naive quality of the entire experience.

So it would be easy to blame nostalgia for my enjoyment of Joshua Henkin's new novel "Matrimony," which begins at a small liberal arts college in an idyllic setting in the mid-1980s. The degree to which he evokes the rarefied quality of those rare places is why I kept reading after the first few pages, but I stayed with it because the people, more than the places, came alive in a spookily familiar way.

Julian Wainwright, a wealthy, WASPy New Yorker, arrives at Graymont College in Western Massachusetts as a rebel, having spurned his father's alma mater, Yale, in order to study with the legendary writing professor Stephen Chesterfield. Chesterfield shot to early success, went to Hollywood, had his heart broken and is currently wallowing in writer's block.

At Graymont he's preparing the next generation of writers by teaching them his 117 commandments, among the most useful: Thou Shalt Not Use The Word "Kerplunk" in Your Stories; and Thou Shalt Populate Your Stories With Homo Sapiens. Henkin never implies that Chesterfield's rules will work for life in general, not just writing, but I get it.

Mia Mendelsohn, a sad-eyed Jewish beauty from Montreal, is famous with Julian and his best friend, Carter, for her freshman picture before either meets her in person. As Julian says, he seduces Mia "with Strunk and White," and they couple up and live out their college years floating naked in the backyard hot tub and ferrying their friends to and from campus in Julian's charmingly broken down Saab known as "The Wainwrightmobile." I knew Mia Mendelsohn -- heck, I was Mia Mendelsohn. I even had a sick parent and my own Julianesque well-off WASP with artistic pretensions.

When Mia and Julian marry at the end of their senior year and move to Ann Arbor and the giant University of Michigan, their story stops resembling mine and gets truly interesting. And by interesting I mean they get down to and through the aches and pains and transcendent joys of being married. Mia is a psychology grad student at the University of Michigan and Julian, working on his novel, teaches undergrads and cooks for Mia and her friends.

At one dinner party, Julian describes what it's like to be married to a grad student without being one yourself: "He liked Mia's classmates, but when the conversation turned to shop, as it often did, when someone referred to something that had happened in class, when a piece of gossip was proffered about one of the professors, he felt, not excluded, exactly, but as if he were hovering on the periphery, looking in through a window at the festivities going on inside."

The book moves from one college town to another until ending in New York City. The change of scenery and the academic setting lend themselves to Henkin's genius, as he is beautifully able to render the give and take, back and forth of marriage over the long haul. One move is for your education, the next is for my job. Always someone must make friends for the couple from the inside or battle the loneliness of being outside of the action. Henkin avoids pronouncements about marriage with a capital M, and he makes sure that the circumstances of Mia and Julian's union never veers into type. The novel proves the maxim that one can never know what goes on between two people, but the novel also proves that it's worth getting a close enough look to try to figure it out.

Julian's friendship with Carter plays itself out as the class struggle I knew it would become. Carter's early confidence and ambition eventually lead him to financial riches followed quickly by divorce and bitterness. And even after Julian and Mia suffer the setback of betrayal, they prevail as a couple. And they reconcile with Carter as well. The happy ending isn't contrived but earned and not because the characters know something that the rest of us don't. Instead they innately follow the matrimonial and life equivalent of Chesterfield's rules: be kind, pay attention, stay curious, remember your friends, dance when you can.