Wow. I consider myself fairly intelligent and with at least an average knowledge of books and authors. But reading The Marriage Plot made me realize how dumb I really am. Every other sentence contains an obscure literary or philosophical reference of which I have never heard. I'm quite interested in the three main characters--the woman and two men in the "love triangle" that begins in their 1980s college years at Brown University--but I can barely get through the constant allusions to philosophical and fictional literary "tropes" (I looked it up.)
Go ahead and hate my review if you will. I spent two weeks diligently plowing through 70 pages of this book. I'm sure it is wonderful, will probably win another Pulitzer for its brilliant author. But for me, reading it was like sitting between two members of the literary intelligentsia at a dinner party, as they try to one-up each other with the depth and breadth of their vast knowledge. I was simultaneously bored,lost and annoyed.
on October 17, 2011
One is led to expect it - a new novel by a much-hyped author following on a earlier success. For a number of reasons, I'm glad I read and finished this novel; at the same time however, I'm left dissatisfied and disappointed.
This novel seemed a pale shadow of his earlier work Middlesex - both in the writing and the plot. Young female protagonist gets saddled with an infirm fiance/husband and who then lives in a quandary - sounds a lot like Ann Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier. But that's where the resemblance ends. While Packer packed (!) an emotional punch with her deeply nuanced rendering of her protagonist's emotional life and in the process humanized her despite her evident flaws, Eugenides' rendering and characterization of HIS protagonist as well as the other characters by contrast revealed rather thin silhouettes.
It may be an effect of the novel's overall tone and voice; Eugenides assumes a chipper and distantly objective voice in dissecting his characters' inner voices and emotional turmoil, mental lives and activities. His cool, shrink-like/God-like stance however keeps us at a distance and thus from empathizing with their travails despite at times sympathetic portrayals; instead of being drawn into the felt hurts and rawness of their dilemmas, there was a constant underlying thrum reminding me of who they were in the times they lived in (early 1980s) i.e. privileged and self-absorbed college graduates without especially great financial concerns or obligations other than to themselves and what they felt entitled to. There was a diffuse sense of their sophomoric attitudes, jejune concerns and overall busy-ness in tending to themselves and nursing their mental images of each other, such that when reality intruded in a big way, they were all hugely unmatched. It was hard to feel like I actually cared very much what happened to these people one way or another, unlike the protagonist in Packer's novel (as irritating as she was in her own way).
I'd even go so far as to say that The Marriage Plot is a misnomer; Eugenides claimed in a radio interview that he was attempting to traffic in the tropes found in Victorian novels but as I see it, there was something flippant and even subtly snide and derisive in his treatment and approach to his characters playing at adulthood. The notion of marriage and its crucial implications on the economic and social status for women in the past certainly did not apply in the novel's setting; by contrast, what we have here is merely a mildly convoluted case of trite boy-girl relations heightened only by dint of the microscopic lens the author put them under. To that end, perhaps an alternative title to the novel might more aptly reference the knots and entanglements they all twist themselves into rather than any notion of marriage at all.
Incidentally, Eugenides also employed an interesting Rashomon-esque device (riffing off the Eng Lit discussions of the characters) in the later chapters which I'd rarely encountered elsewhere, where specific encounters and events told from a character's perspective in a chapter were subsequently retold from another's perspective. It's a small thing to highlight in a review but for what it's worth, I enjoyed it and it certainly helped to break up growing sense of blandness and predictability as the narrative wore on.
on November 11, 2011
Is there an inverse relationship between the size of the author's name on the cover and the amount of editing he receives?
I heart novels. I heart Victorian literature. I heart heart Jeffrey Eugenides. Sadly, all of this love does not add up to any affection for The Marriage Plot. Do not believe the judgments from the professional reviewing class - this novel is neither brilliant, nor one of the year's best - unless 2011 has produced an unusually weak crop of literary fiction titles. The Marriage Plot is a middling effort from a very talented novelist; a noble experiment - to meld a standard Victorian trope with a modern-day story - but one that ultimately fails.
I thought "Maybe I'm too middle aged to enjoy a novel about the piffles of college life." Then I thought "Wait a minute -- No. I loved A visit From the Goon Squad; Skippy Dies; The Secret History. Those novels are about the unformed and the waiting to be. No, it's him, not me."
So, the question I keep turning in my mind is: why? I know there have been many reviews written already. Who needs another from the peanut gallery, right? But I just had to get this out of my system.
The story in a nutshell: Madeleine Hanna - beautiful, brainy, pedigreed -- falls in love with Leonard - handsome, brilliant, impoverished, mentally ill. They rush into a brief and unsuccessful marriage. Mitchell Grammaticus -- also whip-smart, but average looking and squeamish -- orbits around the star-crossed couple as Madeline's unrequited lover. Part I takes place on Graduation Day and sets up the characters and their present-day histories. Part II sends Mitchell on an hejira abroad. Maddy and Leonard struggle separately professionally and together romantically. Part III rings down the curtain on their relationship. Mitchell learns that his best friend is gay, that he is not cut out for missionary work, and that he and Madeleine are never meant to be.
There's too much in this slim volume and not enough.
As for the latter --none of the characters are likeable, but that isn't the problem. They are simply too shallowly drawn. Much of the novel's weight is on Madeleine's patrician shoulders and she's not up to the job. I adored the protagonist of Middlesex. I don't give a tinker's cuss for Madeleine. We don't get Leonard's back story until well into the novel - and finally he becomes interesting. Ultimately, I didn't care what happened to any of them, because I didn't believe or understand them
As for the former: The Marriage Plot is cluttered with stuff. The narrative is stopped cold by long digressions on semiotics, and studded with odd details attached to bit players, who appear, are draped in physical descriptions, only to be unceremoniously dropped. Part I was a hard slog through passages about post-modern literary criticism that quickly snuffed out any charm.
Eugenides frequently resorts to contemporary and brand references as characterization, and I suppose this is meant to be the "brilliant" semiotic overlay. One character, for example, is wearing an Elsa Peretti necklace. No one would accuse me of being indifferent to shopping or jewelry, but I don't know what an Elsa Peretti necklace looks like. What does the choice of this jewelry designer say about this young woman? No clue. Another minor character has Jean Luc Ponty hair. I know who he is, but I don't know anything about his coiffure. No picture formed. Was I supposed to Google this? If you don't get the references, it seems less semiotic than idiotic - as least as a novelistic device.
Finally, I'm at a loss to see how the travails of Madeleine Hanna match-up to the Victorian novel's marriage plot. Marriage in the Victorian era was a serious business. Courtship among the upper classes was not conducted rashly; an offer was well considered on socio-economic grounds. (And Jane Austen novels don't count. Austen died 20 years before the Victoria era began.) Mental illness - madness - was portrayed in Victorian novels, but in the recesses of my memory of English Lit, not so much in relation to the marriage plot. Was The Marriage Plot an inversion of Wurthering Heights, with Leonard playing Heathcliff to Madeliene's Catherine Earnshaw, and Mitchell as Edgar Linton?. Did Eugenides imagine what would happen if Catherine actually married Heathcliff instead of Linton? Did he swap the moors for the Brown University quad? A good parlor game, no doubt, but few will care enough about this trio to play.
I was so happy to get this book, and I finished it out of respect for Eugenides. But there was none of that eagerness I typically feel in the midst of a good novel, to jump into bed with some new character I was excited about. And I'd like to say that Eugenides is suffering from the expectations of his former success; that I expected more of him, given The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. The truth is, if I picked up this book and didn't know a thing about its author, I'd still think this book was dominated by a privileged, whiny Brown University princess; that the plot jerked along and was bloated with filler. I would think, ya know, with some editing, this Eugenides fella could be really good.
on June 7, 2012
Usually I either love, like a book or just plain don't like it, but this is the most indecisive I've been over a book in a long time. I finished the first 50 or 75 pages during my first evening's reading, and couldn't wait to get back to it. The rest of the book didn't go quite so fast at all.
The overall story concerns Madeleine Hanna and her relationship with fellow student, Leonard Bankhead, in the 1980s when they meet at Brown University in Rhode Island. There is also student Mitchell Grammaticus who feels that Madeleine is destined to marry him. Leonard is into science and Mitchell is into religious mysticism while Madeleine is an enthusiastic English major, and the question is are there no more great love stories like the ones in nineteenth century literature. The author tries to approach the answer in a new, more contemporary way through his characters and their lives.
Since the story starts with a college graduation, Madeleine, the central female character, is rude and disrespectful to her parents on such an occasion as her college graduation day. Her parents are annoying and Phyllida, the mother, puts on such airs that I couldn't stand her. Alton, Maddie's father, reminded me very much of a deceased family member and I will not speak ill of the dead. Despite their uppity ways, Maddie's parents' home was held together by the grace of duct tape and they made no excuses about that.
What I like the most about the book is the discussions among students and the classroom discussions of French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his theory of deconstruction, and the semiotics seminar. My degree is in nursing rather than English, and I was fascinated by all of this new information that I had never heard of, and so I read up on it and actually learned something new from this book. That I enjoyed very much.
What I personally felt about "The Marriage Plot" overall as a complete novel is that it is elitist, too long and too detailed in parts, especially Mitchell's and Larry's trip to India. It might not have been so bad if the trip had more of a purpose than what it did, and if it had made more sense. Madeleine enabled Leonard many times and put herself into such bad situations with him. Mitchell was in need of help, too, in my opinion.
"The Marriage Plot" is enough of Jeffrey Eugenides for me at the present time, and perhaps later on I will read another of his books. I gave this one three stars for being okay, but I couldn't justify giving it any more than that. The book may shine in more scholarly, academic circles, I don't know, but reading it for pleasure the book seemed to have a pall hanging over all the characters and the atmosphere in general. After the first 100 pages, I'd recommend it, but after finishing the book, I wouldn't.
on October 20, 2011
I decided to read Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" for two reasons: his "Middlesex" was a pretty good read, and the new novel's book jacket plugs the "Plot", asserting that the author `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.' I should have been forewarned by this. That "The Marriage Plot" serves as yet another burial plot for `the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels' should come as no surprise given the hype on the book jacket. Perhaps it is too difficult even for a really talented writer like Eugenides to write convincingly about married love in our age. After all, it has been a long time since there has been a novel that spoke convincingly of married love. There are rooms full of contemporary, convincing novels about illicit love, but none about married love. In a minor, but telling, scene, the heroine of "The Marriage Plot", Madeleine Hanna, a graduating senior at Brown University, attends a graduation party at Pookie's and Lollie's house, and finds, in an upstairs bedroom, `two girls with pony tails and necklaces lying across the bed. ..... The bookshelves held the usual Kafka, the obligatory Borges, the point scoring Musil.' The Marriage Plot is full of these literary references. The apparent putdown of Robert Musil is interesting, since Musil wrote what is perhaps the last great novel containing married love as one of its main themes. Perhaps to write convincingly of married love now, an author has to disguise it as something else, for instance as Musil did, writing about the adult love between brother and sister.
Of the three main characters in "The Marriage Plot", only the manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead seems truly life-like. And I hated him, which just goes to prove that he is life-like. Madeleine Hanna, unfortunately, seems superficial in comparison. That may have been the author's intention, but, if so, he has succeeded all too well. It is very rare to see a male author capable of creating a compelling heroine, and in this, Eugenides is no exception. It is all too fitting that the other main character, Mitchell Grammaticus, who has been in love with Madeleine throughout, at the end thinks `she wasn't so special, maybe. She was his ideal, but an early conception of it, and he would get over it in time.'
What distinguishes "The Marriage Plot" is the page-turning compulsion to find out what is going to happen next. In this, it is comparable to the best in detective fiction, like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and as ultimately superficial.
on January 3, 2012
I, too, intended to love this book, having waited for it since Middlesex. I, too, am disappointed. I felt like I was reading Franzen's Corrections, which was okay, but I didn't need to read it again; nor did I finish Freedom by Franzen for the same reason. I am disappointed because I had put great stock in JE, and I was sure this next book, so long in coming would be a masterpiece.
What has happened to popular literature? Why is it sufficient to trot out the lives of characters, their intersections and their problems, without the framework of plot -- there is no "desire" here. There is no conflict, and there is no passion.
I am always glad to learn new things. So after the MP I know some little something about yeast cells. I know a little more about manic/depression and I know some things about India which I might not have come to otherwise know.
The parents in this story were cut from the same dough as many others. In this book, and those like it, 20somethings from the 1980s (who would be 50 somethings now) are vapid but brilliant, healthy but unable to follow their own common sense, and they aren't even having a great time with sex. Sex is so tortuous in this book, that it frequently reads like the Indian excrement scene, embarrassing and tragic.
I suppose, as one reviewer put it, if I were of that class, I could identify with it better. I am much older than those characters were in this telling, but I don't lack my own memories from my 20s. We had **fun**. We suffered deeply, we played hard, we felt things, we regretted, we rejoiced. These people don't even get a kick from their privileged education and the exposure to the subjects they chose to study.
Poor Mitchell couldn't measure up to his own standards for being "good." Leo's situation is hopeless. I've known some M/Ds in my life. They function most of the time, they hold jobs and have families, go to school and prevail much of the time -- especially those with two shrinks and constant medication monitoring. This boy, Leonard, was hung out to dry. Maddy took on his illness and became a depressive too. There was nothing to root for in any of them.
So, I am disappointed on many levels. I expected more from the writer of Middlesex. I expected more from the parade of characters, not all of whom were cardboard cut-outs, and I expected some kind of mystery or journey or decision to be made by the hero -- but frankly, I am not sure who the hero/protagonist was.
The point of view changes were very effective, because not one of those characters could have supported the whole book. I was looking for a transition, a convergence of the three into one (metaphorically), but none came.
Maddy gets out of her situation with Leonard. Mitchell must accept her passive rejection and Leo is out running in the woods. While this may represent reality, who gives a s**t?
on November 12, 2011
In the Marriage Plot Eugenides writes "the experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure." That's how I felt about the Marriage Plot--like I was plowing through a difficult book, hoping to get to the good parts that would make the tedious parts suddenly worth it. But the good part never came.
This is a story about a young love triangle involving college students Madeleine, an over-privileged young woman; Leonard, a down-on-his luck man from a dysfunctional family; and Mitchell, a spiritual seeker who is infatuated with Madeleine. This book was very difficult to remain interested in and I found myself wishing for the inevitable and unsurprising ending. To my surprise, Eugenides, who is one of my favorite authors, "allowed his fondness for digressions to run away with him." Here are a few examples of his sentences:
"Over the next few minutes Thurston explained his theory--but it wasn't a theory, it was the wisdom of his Andover roommate, who, after downing vast quantities of "spirits," bourbon, mostly, but scotch, too, gin, vodka, Southern Comfort, whatever they could get their hands on, basically, whatever they could filch from "the parental cellars," Blue Nun, for a period, during the "Winter of Liebfraumilch," when they had the run of a friend's ski chalet in Stowe, and Pernod, once, because they'd heard it was the closest thing available to absinthe and they wanted to be writers and needed absinthe in the worst way--But he was getting off the point."
That was ONE sentence!! And not the only one. Here's another:
"The deep, squiggly greens of Parisian parks, the repeated motif of Nurse Clavel "hurrying faster and faster," steadying her wimple with one hand, her shadow elongating with her premonition that "something is not right," and, over by the light socket, the one-legged soldier, on crutches, beneath the caption that said, "And sometimes they were very sad"--the sense conveyed, by the illustrations, of Paris, a city as orderly as the girls' "two straight lines," as colorful as Bemelman's pastel palette, a world of civic institutions and statues of military heroes, of cosmopolitan acquaintances like the Spanish ambassador's son (a dashing figure, to Maddy, at six), the storybook Paris that wasn't without hints of adult error or misfortune, that didn't candy-coat reality but faced nobly up to it, the singular victory for humanity a great city represented, and which, though vast, didn't scare Madeline, who was so small--somehow all of this had communicated itself to Madeleine as a little girl." One sentence! It seems like Eugenides allowed himself to get bogged down in complex sentences and minute details, but never really fleshed out the main plot.
on November 3, 2011
Like many readers who loved The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, The Marriage Plot has come as a sharp disappointment. While there are some fine passages in the book and some genuinely witty moments dotted around the story, they seem adrift in a rambling narrative that travels all the way around the world but never seems to get anywhere.
From interviews with the author and other reviews, I gathered that the novel was intended as a pastiche of the great English Victorian novel, carrying this literary tradition into the present day. Yet while the book is peppered with references to Austen, Eliot, Gaskell, Bronte et al, I got no real sense that Eugenides was exploring or even just playing with the literary conventions of such classics. Leading you to believe that his modern-day characters are about to recreate a scene from Anna Karenina, only to subvert expectations at the last minute, is about as clever as it gets.
Another problem is the fact that the novel is rather arbitrarily set in the early 1980s, yet there seems little reason why Eugenides chose this era, nor much attempt to recapture it. Both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex made very precise use of history, but The Marriage Plot is so insular in its concerns that it pretty much could have taken place any time in the past 50 years.
Don't get me wrong: I didn't dislike the novel and, unlike a lot of other reviewers here, didn't find the characters tiresome. But such a rote novel of post-academic life is not what you expect or want from a novelist capable of letting his imagination soar into the stratosphere.
on April 3, 2013
It took me almost 1/3 of this book to get into it and then I enjoyed up to the point where Mitchell goes to India, then it just fizzled out again. Given that Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist I was expecting very big things and I was disappointed.
I agree with many other reviewers who found the characters hard to like. Madeline is a one-dimensional rich kid Mary-Sue who runs home to mummy and daddy (who she still refers to by these names at the age of 22) when life gets rough. Mitchell has all these deep thoughts about religion and is supposed to be uber-intelligent, but most of the time he comes across as a sexist douchebag. When he visits the slums of India in an attempt to find enlightement he still manages to make it all about him. Leonard was the only one with a bit of substance to him and I sympathised with his struggles with manic depression. At end of the book he conveniently steps onto a train with his mental illness never to be seen again, leaving Madeline to get on with her fabulous life in her fabulous New York apartment (no doubt paid for by mummy & daddy as she never has a job throughout the book).
Throughout the book Mitchell suffers from unrequited love for Madeline but at the end he has a revelation that is hugely anti-climactic. I found his intense love of her hard to understand considering that they spend almost no time together and their memories of their past interactions are not very meaningful. I think this can partly be attributed to the writing style because Eugenides has a habit of beginning the narration from a characters point of view in the present, and then switching to their memories of the past, throwing in huge slabs of backstory and exposition. I found this distanced me from the characters and their dilemmas.
I'm an English major who went through university in the mid-90s when deconstruction and Derrida were still all the rage (Australia is a bit behind the rest of the world, at least at the regional university I attended). I also love Victorian literature so I'm really the prime target market for this book. When I read the blurb I was very excited but sadly it was nothing like I expected. I wanted to know more about Madeline's studies but the focus shifted to Leonard and Mitchell's work and stayed there. Madeline spends most of the book worrying about her love life while the men are given much more profound things to occupy them. The stuff on theory didn't make much sense even for someone who has studied it in-depth. The whole marriage plot idea seemed forced and left me cold.
I won't let this experience turn me off the author because I've read some wonderful reviews of Middlesex from other people who didn't like this book either. The fact that I actually finished and did get some enjoyment out of the book means it wasn't a complete waste of time. 2.5 stars.
For me The Marriage Plot was my most anticipated book of the year. I had read Eugenides earlier works (Middlesex, Virgin Suicides) and loved them. I went to hear the author read from his work and answer questions at the Free Library session he conducted. All of this anticipation I think added to my disappointment with this story.
The setting for the novel is the Brown University campus in 1982. There are three central characters - Madeline, an indulged rich girl is a Literature major who loves the works of the great Victorian novelists (Eliot, James, etc.); Leonard is a brilliant biology major who has bipolar disease; Mitchell an idealist majoring in religious studies rounds out the trio. The story opens on graduation day. Madeline and Leonard have been lovers but have separated. On the way to graduation Madeline finds out that Leonard has been hospitalized for his bipolar disorder, she skips graduation joins him at the hospital and begins a period that ends up with her marriage to him a year later. Mitchell has been in love with Madeline (or an idealized version of her) since freshman year but his love is unrequited. The story is told in three parts from each of their view points. I won't say too much else about the plot even though I thought the plot was fairly thin.
Let me first concentrate on what I liked about this novel. Eugenides is able to create genuine characters that have a real depth to them. The sections where Leonard's mental illness is depicted were excellent. He described the lithium effects on Leonard's personality and he gives real understanding to the depression that he suffers from. I read these parts and was sure that Eugenides must have had firsthand experience with mental illness to write this well. Leonard is the most developed of the characters; we get his back story of family problems and have a real understanding of his personality. Mitchell is also a well done character, he is the seeker of truth and beauty in the trio, even his idealism rings true for a 22 year old. His trip to work at Mother Teresa's hospital in India (something Eugenides did) and his eventual dawning that he is not mean to become a religious mystic again rings true in the telling. I also liked the way Eugenides was able to describe the places where the novel occurred. The Brown campus, the genetics laboratory and the upper class New Jersey society all were worlds that were lush with detail and alive to the reader.
There were a number of things I did not like about this novel. I thought that the number of literary and philosophical references (some of which I understood, most of which probably passed me by), were too clever and in the end pretentious and distracting from the story. I really didn't care for any of the characters, Leonard was narcissistic to the point of annoyance - I know, I know he was mentally ill - but it didn't make him any more likeable. Madeline, like Mitchell was an idealist, but she seemed to also be self absorbed and really didn't show much character growth. I was never able to understand what she saw in Leonard. Mitchell was the best of them, but again not enough for me to care about. Lastly, I thought the story lacked tension, probably because toward the end I had only a mild interest in the fate of these characters.
This novel is not Eugenides best effort. He is a fine writer who is erudite, witty and clever but that isn't enough to carry this novel - a weak story well told.