The Magazine

Morningstar in America

An underrated novel gets some overdue attention.

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Wouk was a naval officer during World War II, serving as executive officer of a minesweeper-destroyer, and it was military service that pulled him out of his circumscribed life as a New York Jew to a broader knowledge of America and its people. It also gave him time to read and write. It was during sea duty that he composed his first novel, Aurora Dawn (1947), a good-natured satire of the world of radio advertising, also based on an earlier draft of a play. Its modest success persuaded Wouk to concentrate on novels, and gave him confidence as well. Wouk told me that it occurred to him during his time in the Navy that the conflict deserved a work akin to War and Peace—but that couldn’t possibly be accomplished by “a lowly gag writer.”

Still, Marjorie Morningstar is a novel of professional, as well as emotional, skill. There is a pair of compelling central characters, and a plot which is at all times organic, never forced or contrived. It is further heightened by a technical feat: There are only two scenes from a point of view other than the heroine’s; as in life, many of the surprises come not from the outcome of events but from the central character’s abrupt recognition that she has misunderstood or misperceived her choices. Although clever and beautiful, Marjorie is young, unworldly, and naïve, and we can see that she has limited social skills and modest talent.

In the course of her young adulthood, she assimilates away from her traditional Jewish upbringing and, as one critic has noted, picks up a series of bad habits without acquiring any compensatory virtues. It is this last quality—virtue—which sits at the heart of the tale. For, although Marjorie falls in love with the hedonistic Noel, she won’t sleep with him without a ring. If this sounds especially dated today, it struck a discordant note in 1955 as well. Wouk told me that it was the intervention of no less than his fellow novelist John P. Marquand, serving on the board of the Book of the Month Club, which led to its selection, and that both his agent and his publisher regarded Marjorie as hopelessly uncommercial. 

That Marjorie Morningstar went on to rank among the biggest sellers of the 1950s, and that so many women continue to rank it as their favorite novel, is testament to how vital it can be, reflecting the complex and ambivalent reactions of readers. The “happy” ending, set in the years long after the central events of the novel, suggests a certain unease, a lack of fulfillment in its heroine. Marjorie Morningstar, willfully reconstructing and reinterpreting her own life, finds that time has allowed her to forget her pain. But the reader cannot.

Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.