Monday, November 18, 2013

1955: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

The Author:

Herman Wouk (1915 -    ) was born in New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.  He lived in the Bronx and later attended Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1934.  He worked in radio until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, at which point he joined the Navy.  He used his experience in the Navy when writing his Pulitzer Prize winning third novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951).  His first novel, Aurora Dawn (1947) was a book of the month club selection, but his second, City Boy (1948), failed financially.  He married Betty Sarah Brown in 1945, and they remained married until her death in 2011. 

Wouk has had a long, prestigious career.  Other notable works include The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), both dealing with the Holocaust.  He currently lives in Palm Springs, California.  His most recent novel, The Lawgiver (2012) is an epistolary novel concerning the making of a Moses movie, told through text messages, emails, etc.  

The Book:

Length: 573 pages
Subject/Genre: Character Study/Bildungsroman

Marjorie Morningstar is a bildungsroman about an upper-middle-class Jewish girl with dreams of being an actor.  Marjorie Mogenstern starts off as an idealistic beautiful teenager in the 1930s. She comes into conflict with the social norms of her parents and her contemporaries.  She falls in love with an older man, Noel Airman, a composer also looking for success in the theater.  Their relationship is a rocky one.  

While I try to avoid spoiling endings, I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the epilogue for Marjorie Morningstar.  So, if you don't want any spoilers, skip this paragraph:  The epilogue takes place fifteen years after the rest of the story.  Marjorie, now in her late thirties, is a typical suburban stay-at-home mom.  All trace of her ambitions are gone.  This has led to a lot of debate and dissent amongst Wouk's readers.  Either it is a moralistic story, condemning sexual exploration and individualism in women, or it is meant to capture what happened to women in a society that was unfair to them.  Whether it's a depiction of society the way it was, or an attempt to reinforce those norms is a contentious point.

Wouk's critical and commercial success with his previous novel, The Caine Mutiny, no doubt aided sales for Marjorie Morningstar, which become a cultural phenomenon in its own right.

TIME magazine, Sept. 1955

And, like most of the books on the #1 bestseller's list, a film version was produced.  The 1958 adaptation starred Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood.

Marjorie Morningstar has a complex protagonist, and deals with the serious issues of adolescence.  I feel the book may be a bit dated, not to the extent that it is unrelatable, but it is clearly a product of a 1950's sensibility.  If you're looking for a coming of age story and don't demand a Hollywood ending, Marjorie Morningstar is a good pick.

Also published in 1955:
William Gaddis - The Recognitions
Graham Greene - The Quiet American
Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita
Flannery O'Connor - A Good Man Is Hard to Find
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the KIng
Tennessee Williams - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Wouk, Herman. Marjorie Morningstar. 1955. New York: Signet Books. 1957. Print.

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