Matters of Honor

Written by Louis Begley
Review by Nancy J. Attwell

It is the early 1950s. Three Harvard freshmen from disparate backgrounds are thrown together as roommates: Sam, a scion of an upstanding New England family; Archie, a boarding school alumnus; and Henry, a Jewish holocaust survivor from Poland. Henry—who refuses to be defined by either his ethnicity or his personal history–is intelligent, obstinate, and fiercely determined to remake himself as a member of the American elite. Fascinated by Henry’s passion for success, Sam and Archie contrive to help him acquire the necessary polish to fit into society’s upper echelons.

Narrated in an easygoing voice by Sam, the novel chronicles the adventures of the trio as they wind their way through their college years and then attempt to settle into high-powered careers. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that all three have complex relationships with their parents­­–relationships that impact the entire course of their lives.

While Matters of Honor is an enjoyable read that highlights the intellectual attitudes of post-Holocaust America, it lacks that “certain something” that would make it a truly great novel. The writing is good, the characters interesting, and the setting authentic. What is missing is conflict: There is no rivalry amongst the friends, no secret waiting to be uncovered, and—thanks to the spoiler on the cover—no surprises either. That, combined with several unanswered questions (why does Sam need daily psychotherapy?), is disquieting. It is impossible to know how I would have reacted to this story if I had not read the jacket material first. Despite these flaws, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in 20th-century American history.