Monday, February 17, 2014

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
3.5 / 5

Published 2011

First Sentence
"To start with, look at all the books."
Publisher's Description:
New York Times Notable Book of 2011
Publisher's Weekly Top 10 Book of 2011
Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Best Fiction of 2011 Title
One of Library Journal's Best Books of 2011

Salon Best Fiction of 2011 title
One of The Telegraph’s Best Fiction Books of the Year 2011

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the caf├ęs 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.

Dear Reader,

This book was NOT what I was expecting, which was an awesome thing.  I hadn't read thing one about it (or, at least, I don't recall anything I did read about it!), and apparently even when I picked it up as an audiobook on CD, I didn't even read the blurb on the back - I just went by the author's name, of whom I am a fan from having read his earlier Middlesex.  I really enjoyed his writing style in both novels, and his often unique approach to the world.

This book was a complete departure from his earlier work, which took place in Detroit around the 1960s (but stretched three generations back in order to tell the story).  This one, on the other hand, began with the graduation of the class of 1982 from Brown University, in Providence, RI.  I love that Eugenides selected this time period, not only because I am a child of the '80s (and felt some nostalgia, even though the characters were certainly before my time), but also because it evoked a time of entirely different communications - before cell phones, computers, and the internet - which made for a very compelling story.  In fact, I'm not even sure the story could have happened the way it did were it set further in the future - much of the way life works out for Madeline and the rest can be attributed to the way they are forced to communicate: over the telephone, through hand-written letters, and in person.  And as much as I love my technology, it's a time I also miss: I am still a writer of letters and a fan of typewriters (although it's been years since I used one!).  In any case, I appreciate how the author selected this era: it was modern enough for the way life unfolds for the characters, and yet long ago enough that it evoked a twang of nostalgia for a bygone time.

How could it have been told in any other time?  The graduates find themselves lost, entering the adult world at the time of a severe recession (another way I related strongly to this book!).  They are uncertain of what they want to do with their lives; this really was the first generation who was told they could do and be anything, and who felt that subsequent sense of drifting at sea when they didn't feel as if their futures were certain.  One character works at a scientific laboratory which (among other things) explores the relatively young field of genetics, and struggles with the newness of diagnosed mental illness combined with the administration of experimental medications.  Another decides to travel abroad on almost no money in order to see the world; this is no longer the purview only of the rich and spoiled children who graduate from Ivy League universities, but of all liberal arts students.  All of the characters find themselves struggling to self-identify (some with their sexuality, some with their vocations, some with their religion); they spar with the legacies of their parents and yearn to define themselves separately.

I am not sure I really liked any of the characters entirely, but they were all very human, and you wanted to embrace them, flaws and all, as real people.  There were plenty of surprising moments in the book, but most surprising of all was that this was not a love story.  The title made me worry that it might be (I thought it might mean that the book outlined a scheme to get two people hitched).  Then the explanation of what "the marriage plot" actually referred to (the way Victorian-era novels revolved around getting a woman married off, as if she were nothing as a spinster) also threw me, as I thought this might be a modern-day take on the idea.  Which, I suppose, ultimately it was - but the ending will surprise you.  It did me, and pleasantly.  It certainly took an outdated ideal and updated it in a very real and appropriate way, I think.  And with enough of a modern twist that it ended up being a pretty feminist novel, I think.

These characters and their stories will stick with me for a while to come, I think, which is always the mark of a good writer, to me.  If you can create these characterizations who come to almost feel like people you used to hang out with, then you've done something right.

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1 comment:

  1. This is the 3rd book of his that I've read. Absolutely loved it!! Definitely recommend. Interesting story with great characters & good

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