Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

A headstrong Upper West Side yearns to escape her family’s Jewish Bronx origins and become a Broadway star.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve read Marjorie Morningstar, and every time I find myself absolutely riveted for the first two-thirds, then bored and indifferent for the final third, only to be knocked out by the epilogue. The book is rich with details and some astonishing set pieces–such as Seth’s bar mitzvah–but it’s hollow at the core. It’s as if author Herman Wouk gets tired of Marjorie’s adolescent angst, and all of a sudden the book puts on Mom’s high heels and pearls–and they’re just too big.

Marjorie doesn’t need to grow up for her story to be important. Hers is a classic story of a good girl tempted by earthly temptations, sharing its concerns with books like I Am Charlotte Simmons and the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s Nobel prize-winning Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. The beseiged virgin has an elemental draw, and in Marjorie Wouk has created a fascinating character, in terms of her sociological, cultural, and emotional make up.

Marjorie and her family left the Bronx–and Orthodox Judaism–for a better life on the Upper West Side, and throughout the novel Marjorie struggles with her relationship to her Jewish origins. She agonizes over bacon and shellfish, and continually finds herself attracted to men who want her to lapse even further. However, her Old World roots follow her relentlessly and literally in the form of her uncle Samson-Aaron, a hulking behemoth without an ounce of gentility. Marjorie constantly finds herself caught between her love for the uncle who babysat her growing up, and her belief that upward mobility means stifling her Jewishness. It’s a fascinating conflict, and one that typifies New York City’s mid-century growing pains.

Wouk ends up overstating his case with the late-in-the-game introduction of a character working to smuggle Jews out of Europe. Marjorie’s political awakening is just as shallow as all her other awakenings, because that’s how Wouk designed her. She’s not meant for greatness. Wouk seems to want to have it both ways, by tacking on a coda showing Marjorie 15 years later as a homemaker, mother of four, and lush without any trace of the charisma that we’ve been told Marjorie exudes. It’s a shocking gambit that redeems the end of the book; however, I would’ve preferred more of a build up during the final third.

Incidentally, I was curious to see if Wouk might have been inspired by the ending of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, given the similarities. Wikipedia reports that both books were published in 1955. Interesting!

Oh, and as of Monday, November 5th, I’ll be on strike. Looks like the arrival of Superfast Baby won’t be the only labor action I see in 2007!

8 thoughts on “Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk”

  1. The arrival of Superfast Baby… Ha! Wishing you rather the Superfast arrival of Baby. (That happened to me once. My daughter was born in the bathroom… Don’t laugh. It was the best delivery of all.)

  2. I started Marjorie Morningstar way way back in college, but dropped it early on — I didn’t have enough scaffolding to appreciate the Jewish angle. I’d like to try it again, now.

  3. My husband will be on strike, too! See you on the picket lines! (Okay, maybe you should take a pass on the picketing–though it could hasten labor, if that’s a good thing at this point…)

  4. Hi, I just finished Marjorie Morningstar. I can’t believe I had not read it before now (at 54)! It was never recommended in any college class or anything. I was blown away by the book. Not just the way the story was told but the impact regarding the things of the world and the dilution of faith even amoung the faithful. I dont just mean Marjorie but her parents and the Lowenstein wedding. And Noel, he sounds like Manic depression at its worst and empty with philosophy. Anyway, very thought provoking……

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