Wednesday, November 16, 2011
The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar, Strous & Giroux, 2011
Ahhh.... the highly anticipated new Jeffrey Eugenides book: The Marriage Plot. There's a bit of a danger to hype and anticipation - they can lead to very high expectations. I've been reading a lot of short stories recently, and, excited to change it up a little (especially with one of the "big" novels of the season), I dove into this one very eagerly. I really did like it... but confess it did not quite sweep me off my feet.
The Marriage Plot follows three graduating Brown University students caught in a love triangle: Madeline, an English major writing her thesis about Jane Austen; her boyfriend Leonard, a budding scientist grappling with severe manic depression; and Mitchell, the thoughtful religion major whose love for Madeline is unrequited. The plot follows a classic romance-derailed-resulting-in-marrying-the-wrong-guy formula. It got off to a great start, with an excellent, interesting and often funny introduction to the characters and setting, but I found my engagement with the story overall came and went after that.
There is no doubt it is an impressive book: Eugenides creates incredibly detailed, thoroughly developed characters, and I mostly liked them, along with their fundamental struggles and conflicts. Madeline grapples with her identity as independent young woman, girlfriend, wife, caretaker, and academic; Mitchell wrestles with faith and his love for a woman he cannot have; Leonard fights for his relationship and his own mental health. There were a few things that I thought weighed the story down somewhat: With a university setting, it is no surprise that the narrative and dialogue also take some very academic turns, occasionally plunging the reader into lengthy passages about subjects such as semiotics (symbolism in literature) and genetic research. While these are no doubt brilliant and absolutely add authenticity to the characters, my own interest in them was pretty limited. The plot itself was fairly predictable, although there were a few exciting moments (among them, Leonard in a cape and a manic state in a Monte Carlo casino), and a bit of surprise in the ending (which I very truly liked). Most significantly, I felt like the humor - which really made the opening of the novel sparkle - largely disappeared as the story went on, which was a shame.
Perhaps my patience has been a bit spoiled by short stories and am seeking greater impact in fewer words, or perhaps the buzz on this one has been a bit overdone - I have even heard it bandied about on twitter 'can there be a novel about marriage in a post-marriage age'? I wouldn't say that this novel offered any greater understanding about marriage as an institution, or even about the literary 'marriage plot'. It is a love story particular to its protagonists, and often a sad one, at that. What it did offer (in addition to very impressive writing and depth of character) was an incredible window into the nature of living with manic depression. Eugenides paints such a comprehensive, compelling, and eye-opening portrait of Leonard, Madeline, and their relationship, it would be worth reading the novel for this alone.
I borrowed this book from my public library.
You can listen to a clip of the audiobook version of The Marriage Plot here - thank you to Esther Bochner at Macmillan for sharing this link.
You can listen to the author discussing the book and his writing in this BBC interview - thank you to J.A. Pak for sharing this link.