Retro Review:

Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (Doubleday, 1955)

A coming of age story, set in 1933, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk is a novel that still speaks to us. Written in 1955, Wouk’s strengths are in his character development, themes, and elegant prose. What is especially unusual about Marjorie Morningstar is that the author portrays the fanciful young protagonist, Marjorie Morgenstern, with sensitivity and understanding that most male writers do not often get when creating women characters. Most women will identify with Marjorie as she tries to define who she is in the course of the story.

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I have read Marjorie Morningstar several times at different stages of my life, and each time my perspective has changed with my age. As a teenager, I related to Marjorie as a peer, a seventeen-year-old girl with dreams of a great career onstage. Driven by notions of romantic love, Marjorie pursues a man, Noel Airman, for years. The longer she tries to get Noel to settle down with her, the harder he tries to escape her charms. He tells Marjorie that he loves her dearly, but he is not the marrying kind. He won’t marry her, but he refuses to cut her loose.

Marjorie first encounters Noel at a summer camp for adults who aspire to make it on the Great White Way. He is entertaining a crowd by playing his hit song “ It’s Raining Kisses” when  Marjorie notices him. Her initial assessment of Airman is, “His eyes, deep in their sockets, were an extraordinarily bright blue. He needed a shave; the thick stubble along his jaw was redder than his hair. His arms were hugged together, and he was rubbing his left elbow with a palm.” Flawed by a minor birth defect which crooks his arm, Marjorie is awed by Noel’s charisma and maturity. He is 29 years of age, twelve years older than her. She is smitten from that first encounter.

Wouk’s depiction of Marjorie’s immigrant parents and her elderly uncle, Samson-Aaron, provide many humorous scenes as they celebrate the annual rituals of Jewish life. When her mother criticizes her beaus, Marjorie defends them, even if she sees the flaws. Although Marjorie would never let her mother know, Mrs. Morgenstern is usually right about the many men who fight for the girl’s affections. Marjorie is wooed by a procession of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, throughout the story. Although she appreciates many of her suitors, she yearns to capture the man she cannot catch. 

The uncle, Samson-Aaron is a gourmand with a huge belly and astounding appetite. He can be counted on to clean everyone else’s plate after finishing his own meal. At Marjorie’s brother’s Bar Mitzvah, Samson-Aaron astounded the guests at his table. “Samson-Aaron, eating faster than usual to avoid Mrs. Morgenstern’s eye, had cleaned his plate. He took Aunt Dvosha’s, which had on it an unusually thick piece of meat and an oversized potato . . . He heaved a great sigh as he finished Aunt Dvosha’s roast beef and potato; laid down his knife and fork, and turned to Mrs. Connelly with his harmless grin. “Vell,” he said, indicating her piled up plate with his fork, “if you’re sure you don’t vant it, no sense it should go to vaste, so----”

Although many people in the family think Samson-Aaron is a fool, Marjorie loves him beyond measure. He is always in her corner, defending her against the sharp comments doled out by Marjorie’s mother. He provides great humorous scenes in the novel, but like most clowns, there is a deep pathos in his character that becomes more obvious as the story unfolds.

A cloud of foreboding hangs over the novel as the Morgensterns and their other friends and relatives become concerned when they hear terrible stories from family in Europe. Aware that the peril of Hitler is becoming more dangerous by the day, efforts are made by some of the characters to help Jews escape while they can. The backdrop of the impending war and doom adds a measure of suspense in that the characters cannot begin to fathom what is happening in their old hometowns. I could not help but think that Marjorie Morningstar is Wouk’s prelude to his epic novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

I relished every minute that I was reading Marjorie Morningstar, and I was bereft when I finished it. The characters stayed with me for days as I pondered their fates, fortunes, and failures. This is a novel that is satisfying in a way that so many of today’s best-sellers, so formulaic in their plots and themes, are not. If you have never read Marjorie Morningstar, I urge you to read it. You will not be disappointed.