Monday, December 19, 2016

Marjorie Morningstar

When I was fifteen I became very sick over the Christmas break and had to stay in bed for over a week.  My father gave me the book, The Caine Mutiny to read, and having not much to do except read, drink fluids, and perspire I raced through it.  Long time since I was 15 but I remember loving the book.  I still have some of the scenes etched in my head--the one with the strawberries for example, and the post-trial "Multitudes, Multitudes" toast.  Maybe if I read the book as an adult I would have a different take on it, but then at least--and in my memory--I thought it was terrific.

When I told my folks I liked the book my mother suggested another one of Herman Wouk's novels, Marjorie Morningstar.  Dad made a face at that suggestion commenting that Marjorie Morningstar was just some saga about and for a young girl.  On the basis of this review I never had much of a desire to read the book, but recently another friend--someone with whom I went to camp--mentioned the book commenting on how effectively it portrayed a character (not Marjorie, her love interest) who worked at a resort for adults.  I had once seen the last scene in Marjorie Morningstar, the movie, but beside from that and my dad's 1964 review of the book, I knew little about it.

So, I got Marjorie Morningstar out of the library, started reading on the first of December and just finished it last night.  It did not grab me the way The Caine Mutiny did, and for much of the very long novel, I was thinking that once again Dad was right. It is a big fat book with lots of text and little dialogue so it is a bit of a slog to get through. If not for the last ten pages, I might be highly critical of the novel but the last ten pages--written as part of the main novel, but really a postscript-- is "a where are they now" epilogue and has made me think of the book in a different light. I'm still not sure I could recommend the book, but I think it will hang around in my consciousness for a spell.

The book begins when Marjorie Morgenstern is a 19 year old Jewish girl living on central park west in the 1930s. Her family is not affluent which may be an indication of the 30s as they would have to be 80 years later, but the family is not impoverished by the depression either.  Marjorie throughout is depicted as beautiful and has suitors galore. She aspires to be an actress and fancies that when she is successful she will change her last name to Morningstar. Most of the book takes place during the next six years of her life and the central plot is about Marjorie's love affair with a man she meets at a summer resort.

I did not care a whole lot for Marjorie or her love interest, Noel Ehrmann.  I did not think either of them were mensches, though Marjorie had more class than Noel.    So, for 550 pages I am reading about Marjorie and Noel and assorted other suitors and escapades and my feeling was essentially that I did not care much what happened to them. However, as mentioned, the epilogue put an interesting backdrop on the rest of the story.  Fifteen years later, much of who Marjorie was, is forgotten even by Marjorie. She has grown to be someone that would have been of no interest to Marjorie.  Is this the way it goes? Are we, when in the throes of something in our youth, so caught up in what seems essential, that when we look back on these times we are not recognizable to ourselves? Are our fifteen year later selves unrecognizable to those who knew us when?

One very valuable aspect of the book is that it depicts attitudes toward love and sex and marriage that may have been common in the 30s, but are not now.  And it was interesting to me at least to imagine how Marjorie's life would have been different if she had lived in the 21st century and not the 1930s. (This next sentence you might not want to read if you are considering reading the book).  In one scene, for example, Marjorie is beside herself worrying what a man will think of her once she reveals that she, at 24, had been intimate with another.

I think I will take out the movie as I would like to see if the movie--as is the case with movies--changes the story much.  I would not be surprised to find out that the ending is different based on the little snippet I saw of the end of the film.

Bottom line, I am reluctant to write such things, but I think this may be more of a woman's book than a man's as it centers on the thinking of a woman as she matures.  It may be of interest however to anyone who is seeking some insights on attitudes toward intimacy a century ago.

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