Monday, November 14, 2011

Matrimonial bondage

The Marriage Plot is the latest novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. It's easy to remember which novels Eugenides wrote, because he writes at a pretty glacial pace - which is fine, since they're worth the wait.

But I started getting squirmy about a third of the way through The Marriage Plot, which is not at all a reflection on Eugenides' writing but rather my huge and horrible failing as a reader.

I really disliked most of the characters.

Which is fine, there's no reason at all one has to like the characters in a book, and in fact I think it's a testament to a writer's skill to keep you engaged even if the character is detestable (enough with your upstanding cops, already).

I think the reason I disliked Eugenides heroine-of-a-sort, Madeleine Hanna, is that in her earnestness and foolishness she reminded me far too much of me (except, of course, that she's wealthy, symmetrical of face, and has doting if overbearing parents. We don't have any of that in common.).

Madeleine is a senior at Brown University, majoring in English:


Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical - because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different than what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major majored in.

Which, ouch. That hits close to the bone, Eugenides.

The Marriage Plot opens on Madeleine's graduation morning. She's miserable, hungover, and heart-broken after the dissolution of her relationship with Leonard, forced to spend the day entertaining her overbearing Boston Brahmin parents, Phyllida and Alton.

But the winds of English study are changing, and Madeleine - devotee of Austen and the Brontë sisters - finds herself in a class studying Foucault and Derrida, Baudrillard and Deleuze (ugh, flashbacks). The course is full of students who very earnestly talk about things like how problematic it is to introduce oneself and the necessity of not thinking of books as being about anything (ugh, more flashbacks).

And there she meets Leonard, a big, rather slovenly guy, out of place in their class, and it's pretty easy to see why Madeleine likes him - how could you not like someone willing to stand up to the deconstructionist twerps on your behalf?

What follows is, I suppose, the marriage plot. Leonard has manic-depression, the big hitch in their relationship, but he's also kind of a douche, a very particular kind of douche, the kind of douche who will not only never wash his sheets, but also ridicule you for wanting clean sheets - nay, for being so superior as to want clean sheets.

I was rather sadly forced to identify with Madeleine here, since I also dated exactly this kind of douche for two years in college (except he was an alcoholic, not a manic-depressive). Except while I ran for sweet, clean-sheeted liberty, Madeleine marries her douche (which, spoiler? Since it's in the title, I think you saw that coming).

Eugenides bounces between Madeleine and Leonard's deteriorating relationship, Leonard's collapsing mental state, and one of Madeleine's college friends, Mitchell, who is noodling around India searching for enlightenment. Mitchell is the Duckie to Madeleine's Andie, having been infatuated with her since they met.

Compared to Middlesex, The Marriage Plot is zippy, and I blew through the four-hundred-plus pages quickly. The Marriage Plot feels shallower, skimming the surface of its characters instead of thoroughly inhabiting them the way Middlesex did. Of course, this is like complaining about the glove compartment on a Jaguar, since Eugenides could probably write a riveting and entertaining grocery list.

2 comments:

  1. Not symmetrical of face?? Lies.

    I really love reading these reviews. I think I like reading your reviews more than I like reading novels.

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  2. Hahaha thanks - this was good, I like Eugenides, I just think my taste in books is shifting again away from this sort of novel.

    Buuut anywhoooo....if you are around this weekend we should hang out!!! I have this weird (not so weird?) urge to go get pancakes.

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