About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#16: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2011)

"It's the early 1980s -- the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafes on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

"As Madeleine tries to understand why 'it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,' real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead -- charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy, suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged, erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus -- who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange -- resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

"Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

"Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives."

Opening Line:
"To start with, look at all the books."

My Take:
Really enjoyed Middlesex and have heard mixed things about how this one compares. First chapter's been a bit slow to get into, but not lethally so.

(later) Better than average, but Middlesex it ain't. Fortunately, it did get a lot more engaging, at least for me, when we got past Madeleine's college days and out of the copious senior-English-major-seminar, pretentious literary jargon that seemed to take place there. Perhaps some of my more literary friends would have really enjoyed this piece, and even I admit -- I'd encountered enough of this gobbledygook peripherally, by osmosis, that I could recognize Eugenides's skill as a satirist. Even so, I'm a two-time social scientist, and as such, like both my fiction and my academics to be a bit more concrete.

I've also become a fan lately of truth in advertising when it comes to book jackets, and in all honesty -- this wasn't really a proper triangle. "Triangle," to me, implies that there's some sort of relationship among three parties that would be drastically altered if one of those parties were removed. Here that's not the case: Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard loves her back (though perhaps not quite as much) but is really too consumed by his bipolar disorder (then known as manic depression) to be a proper partner, and Mitchell's had a long-standing unrequited crush on Madeleine. A brief flirtation or frisson between the two years earlier does not a triangle make. To some extent, this is a nitpick, but it does get at what I see as one of the book's chief weaknesses: while both the Mitchell-traveling-around-the-world storyline and the Madeleine-living-on-Cape-Cod-with-Leonard-while-figuring-out-what-to-do-with her-life one are reasonably well-done, they don't ever come together in a satisfactory fashion. We see them cross paths early in the novel (technically in flashbacks, as the story begins with Madeleine's graduation and running into Mitchell in a coffee shop), and then again, briefly and insignificantly, towards its end. Mitchell obsesses about Madeleine while backpacking around Greece and India, sure, but I don't recall her thinking much about him at all for the bulk of the book.

Again, I may be coming off a bit too harsh here; Marriage Plot certainly isn't awful. It's entirely possible that I just Didn't Get It, that I'm not sufficiently well-steeped in the Romantic novels Madeleine favors to really appreciate the whole marriage plot novel and thus, to understand the ways in which Eugenides is trying to allude to the same. If so, perhaps it's my loss. This was a decent book, and solidly written -- but not necessarily one I'll need to read again.

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