It’s hard to pick just one book to recommend, isn’t it? I have a long list; stuff like Sharon Kay Penman’s medieval novels (and don’t ignore her Justin de Quincy mysteries, which I loved), Angela Huth’s WIVES OF THE FISHERMEN, Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY, Josephine Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME (which I think should be required reading!), THE CHURCH OF DEAD GIRLS by Stephen Dobyns, INTO THE WOODS by Tana French…the list goes on and on. And yes, of course there are other urban fantasy novels and authors on it, ghost stories and mysteries.
But I’m going to step out of genre and talk about Herman Wouk (who, at the age of ninety-something, has a new book coming out soon, btw). His Pulitzer-prize winning THE CAINE MUTINY is my favorite novel ever. But lately I’ve been thinking about, and listening to on audio, MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR. So that’s what I’ll discuss today.
MARJORIE is about Marjorie Morgenstern (“Morningstar” is her stage name), a young Jewish girl in 1930s New York who dreams of becoming an actress, and who finds herself in a complicated, years-long romance with a fascinating but irresponsible songwriter. The back cover of the first copy I bought—which fell apart, and I had to replace it—described it as something like “a searing romance that crosses two continents.” Which is true, ultimately, but the book is not genre romance by any stretch, and the relationship is both more mundane and more interesting than that. It defines Marjorie…until she decides to stop allowing it to do so.
It’s difficult to talk about MARJORIE without spoiling the ending, which is one of the greatest “upsets” I’ve read, but I’ll try. I’ll just say that the ending is both surprising and not surprising, and that it is deeply satisfying. Having spent something like 500 pages with Marjorie, we care about and like her; we understand her. And whatever she may or may not become, when we close the book on the last page, we know that she is truly happy, truly satisfied.
We know above all that she has been true to herself. Despite the complex and contradictory advice she is given, despite her battling the demands of her parents and the demands of society, Marjorie ultimately chooses to live as she wants to live, and no other way.
I first read the book at eighteen, having devoured THE CAINE MUTINY the year before. I remember being a bit confused by the ending; I liked it, I loved Marjorie and I loved the book, but I was…kind of let down. I’d been expecting something else. Marjorie’s final decisions seemed odd to me. I mean, I got it, but I didn’t “get” it.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t old enough yet to see what Marjorie saw, and to fully understand what led to that decision. This may be due in part to my immaturity at the time—I was only eighteen, after all—but I also believe it’s partly due to Wouk’s skill and the subtlety of the clues he dropped, the way he showed us the character of Noel Airman (the songwriter). At the end, Noel has not changed; he is not presented one tiny bit differently than he has been throughout the book. At eighteen I saw that and didn’t understand what it meant. At eighteen I didn’t quite see, yet, where that led and would lead, how even as Noel is exactly the same the book’s perception of him, and thus Marjorie’s perception of him, has shifted ever so slightly, the way the angle of the sun has shifted in the last week or so, making it feel like fall instead of summer. Everything looks the same; everything is the same, but the way we perceive it, the way it feels, has changed just a bit. It’s like we’ve taken one step to the left.
There’s a moment right at the end where Marjorie sees the room before her as if through a green lens, and everything looks clownish and false. Then the lens disappears and she realizes it was the “lens” itself that was false. She realizes that she is who she is, and she is proud of that, and excited about the future. That’s rather how it feels reading the scene I can only think of as the “showdown” in the book’s penultimate chapters, except in that case it’s a rosy lens that has been removed. At eighteen I didn’t see the removal of the lens, at least not as clearly. Now I do. Now I know why Marjorie made her decision. And, silly as it may sound when referring to a fictional character who appeared over fifty years ago, I’m proud of her.
Perhaps the life Marjorie chooses isn’t one many women choose now, but the fact remains that it is her choice; her decision and no one else’s. The fact remains that she is offered a different life and says no, and never regrets that decision, and we see later how right she was to say no and how strongly she both knew herself and stuck to her guns.
You may feel differently, of course. But either way I recommend the book highly. It’s a lovely, absorbing, wonderful story, and I adore it.
Thank you to Stacia Kane for sharing her recommendations today. I asked Stacia to be a part of this feature because I am absolutely captivated by her Downside series. The heroine is a drug addict. She is fundamentally broken in many ways by neglect and abuse. She makes bad decisions. But Chess Putnam hasn’t given up on life. She maintains loyalty to the Church that employs her and does her job well, banishing ghosts for them. The male lead, Terrible, is officially one of my favorite heroes of all time. He is an uneducated, unattractive thug. But he loves Chess in a way that turns him into a damn prince. The series is gritty and disturbing at times. It’s also amazingly good. If you want to know more, check out my review on book one: Unholy Ghosts.
I don’t have a giveaway just on Marjorie Morningstar, but if you want to give it a try, you can enter the giveaway below. It is for any book recommended by an author during the Favorites From My Favorites feature. (Valued up to $15.) This giveaway is international.
*”Favorites from…” photo: Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos