Thursday, June 12, 2008


The Book: Herman Wouk, MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR. Doubleday, 1955 (first edition). Missing dust jacket. Book is in very good condition; spine is slightly cocked, resale price (80 cents) written in wax pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

In honor of my friend Matt's birthday today, his favorite book. It's one of my favorites, too; in fact, if you've read this book and it isn't one of your favorites, we will never be true kindred spirits.

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR is such a perfectly-drawn portrait of a young Jewish woman in 1930s New York that it's hard to believe a man wrote it. It begins with Marjorie Morgenstern, 17, coming home from a college dance and realizing that her destiny is to be a great actress, with a new name: Marjorie Morningstar.

Marjorie is beautiful, talented, kind, and ready to be chewed up and spit out by life. Life does its best, and Marjorie makes some bad choices. She forms an intense friendship with the grasping Marsha, whose parents live on the edge of New York's theatrical society; Marsha sees star quality in Marjorie, and Marjorie is flattered despite her misgivings.

More dangerously, Marjorie falls in love with the brilliant and mercurial Noel Airman, a songwriter, playwright and would-be philosopher who turns out to be the estranged son of a prominent New York Jewish family. Marjorie and Noel battle each other over years, both believing (consciously or unconsciously) that she can save him, whatever that means.

Of course, what Marjorie ultimately realizes is that she can only save herself -- and she does, becoming what she was always meant to be, only better.

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR is a small story that becomes a big one through the power of literature. I've read it at least 20 times, and still can't figure out the magic that made this Irish Catholic scholarship student, reared in the South, identify so strongly with the New York Jewish girl whose parents nearly beggar themselves to give her everything she wants.

The connection, I think, is that overwhelming desire all bright adolescent girls have to be something more -- to lead a big life rather than a small one, to break free of expectations and dazzle the world with all of that power they suddenly discover in themselves.

In the end, if we're lucky, we become who we're supposed to be, even if it means letting go some of the bigger dreams. That's Marjorie's happy ending, and on Matt's birthday, I wish it for him, and for all of us.

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