The Washington Post Book Club
'Marjorie Morningstar' by Herman Wouk
Presented by Kunio Francis Tanabe
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page BW13
You have to be of a certain age to remember that schmaltzy tune that Gene Kelly sings to Natalie Wood and all the other adoring girls at summer camp in the movie version of "Marjorie Morningstar": "A very precious love, is what you are to me . . . a stairway to a star, a night in Shangri-La, of ecstasy. . . ."
The song was nominated for an Oscar in 1958, and the movie was quite a hit, although "Gigi" dominated the Academy Awards that year. Kelly plays the role of a drama director at South Wind, and Natalie Wood is the heroine, the starry-eyed beauty who falls in love with the wrong guy. The movie is a rarity in video stores, but a new version is in the works with actress Scarlett Johansson. According to an interview in Moviemaker magazine, the star of "Lost in Translation" and "Girl with the Pearl Earring" received the book from her mom and just loved it. "I read it and thought, 'Oh my god, this is me,' and I called her and told her 'I'm Marjorie Morningstar,' and she said, 'I know you are.' "
I found Herman Wouk's coming-of-age novel in 1960 at the American Cultural Center in Yokohama, Japan, and read most of his other books later on when I came to America -- Young Bloodhawke, The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance. But it is this tender love story, published in 1955, that sticks with me still and has provided a point of reference in speaking to my daughter about dating and marriage. If I say, "Stay away from that flashy Noel Airman type -- he'll bring nothing but grief," or "Don't mistreat that shy boy -- he reminds me of Wally," I don't have to elaborate further.
The 565-page novel opens with Marjorie's archetypical Jewish mother musing about the changing mores of courtship as she observes her daughter asleep, exhausted from attending a college dance the night before. The year is 1933. The Morgensterns live on the 17th floor of an apartment building, facing Central Park, a social climb up from the Bronx dwelling where they lived a few years before. The 17-year-old freshman at Hunter College is still swooning over her successes with the boys at a Columbia College dance, especially over the rich boy who asked her to go horseback riding that afternoon. As she daydreams about her budding acting career, she doodles on a sheet of paper and comes up with a slight alteration to her name, translating the German "Morgenstern" to its English equivalent, "morning star." Eureka! With a name like that, she convinces herself she's going to be as famous as Sarah Bernhardt!
Younger readers may find the first half of the novel -- until the scene where Marjorie almost loses her virginity at summer camp -- much more riveting than the second half. South Wind and Marjorie's college years turn out to be far more satisfying than her dealings with the real world: Broadway auditions that turn out to be so many disappointments; her frustrating pursuit of Noel Airman, from Greenwich Village to Paris. Noel's conversations with Marjorie are spiels about the horrors of middle-class values. In the second half of this long novel, you may find enough interesting insights from Noel's soliloquies -- the analysis of "Shirleys" who want romance but will end up marrying doctors or lawyers and living comfortable yet uneventful lives in the suburbs of Manhattan, the observations on the mores of middle-class Jews in New York, the Broadway scene where producers are reluctant to risk their money with intellectually stimulating plays.
First-time readers may be taken aback by how the novel unfolds, especially at the end. Perhaps the ideas in Wouk's novel are somewhat dated, but they may still stir up interesting comments from you. Join me on Thursday, July 29 at 3 p.m. by logging on to washingtonpost.com. •
Kunio Francis Tanabe is art director and a senior editor of Book World.
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