While I accept the premise of "The Marriage Plot" in literature, the claustrophobic world of Rhode Island's Brown University campus, the intimacies of the three protagonists and the endless particulars of the author's descriptions, I struggle throughout the novel to maintain interest in the characters as they act out the author's theme in real life, a formula writ long ago. The story begins with Madeleine Hanna's graduation ceremony, a girl fascinated with Victorian writers Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, the ease and simplicity of regimented society, the men in her life viewed through that romantic prism, the molding of those we love into acceptable roles, a society married its vision of success. Life never delivers the expected, however- sometimes not even the acceptable- but Madeleine finds refuge in Victorian conventions, Eugenides waxing nostalgic for the putative good old days of the eighties, expounding freely on the college experience, laced liberally with the students' penchant for breaching intellectual boundaries, Greek life, a social milieu thriving in a mild political environment.
Daughter of privilege, Madeleine possesses natural beauty in abundance, a senior concentrating on her thesis, lately enamored of theory, philosophy and semiotics. She is helpless to resist the enigmatic Leonard Bankhead, who lives frugally and perhaps harbors deeper secrets. The third element of Eugenides' emotional ménage a trios is Mitchell Grammaticus, a young man deeply inspired by religious studies planning to travel to India, hopelessly in love with Madeleine, who sees only Leonard. Romance blooms with the inevitable heartbreak and dark passages, Madeleine hurling herself into a tormented dance with Leonard, who proves to be vastly more complicated than first appears, a Heathcliff with flaws as seductive as his brilliant mind. In chapters that shift perspective between Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, Madeleine embraces Leonard's dark night of the soul, her lover sliding into a morass of gloom, chronic self-examination and psychiatric aids, his relationship with Madeleine seesawing from dominant to dependent and back again. Predictably, Mitchell is the drama's objective witness, even from India and his all-consuming quest for spirituality, or at least his idea of it.
Whatever joy is found in the beginning of this fiction becomes mired in the author's prose, obscure, mind-numbing details that suck the energy from the novel, an exhausting tale that evolves into irrelevancy by the end. Eugenides gets lost along the way, in love with his characters' intellectual pursuits and consummate angst, facilitating their ingrained habit of resolving their problems through agonies of indecision. Rather than inspire, the novel seems a great conceit, a scrapbook of the past collapsing under the burden of the protagonists' experiences, Leonard and Mitchell orbiting Madeleine's moon, doomed to their own spheres of gravity. The author writes with some depth on Leonard's emotional struggles, but none of these characters capture my imagination. Where, oh where is Jane Austen when you need her? Luan Gaines/2011.
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 27, 2011
I had such high hopes for this novel. I loved Middlesex, and was an English major at an Ivy league school in the 80's - I figured it was made for me. I even had comp lit and lit criticism background, so was ready to dig in. I think the fault might be rooted in the characters - as other reviewers have said, it was hard to CARE about any of them. The beautiful heroine who can get any boy but of course falls for the one who can never make her happy, her privileged family, the depressed but interesting boyfriend. At no point did any of these characters feel real or even convincing. Of the 4000 students at my college, 3990 were more interesting than Madeline and Leonard. They felt more like overdrawn portraits of someone's imagined college roommates rather than any actual character who might have attended Brown in the 80's. The pacing was odd too - the beginning was very weighted down in the college experience with a bit of a jaunt through literary criticism - this was dry to say the least. At times, I had flashbacks to reading the semioticians, deconstructionists (did my share of Derrida and Eco) but the author's prose often felt pedantic for pedantic's sake without adding much to the plot. In fact, I felt like I was reading Kristeva (not a good thing) as the narrative become a bit like a jungle at times. Would I ever make it to the heart of darkness? Barely...after a LOT of college life, suddenly the two lovers marry, go on honeymoon and all hell breaks loose - at the same time, we watch back up boyfriend and follow his peregrinations in India while he tries to work out his own issues, all to win the girl. By the end, as Leonard spiraled into depression, I just didn't care anymore. I felt no sympathy for any of them. From his awesome sexual highs to his depressed lows, I just wanted the book to be OVER. But it just dragged on and on. This novel was a major disappointment - flawed on so many levels. I can't think of a novel whose characters have less appeal. Though I made it to the end, I felt lessened by the experience rather than uplifted, a bit spent and annoyed by all the praise which seems based much more on the expectation of a great novel than an actually great novel, or even a good one. If Middlesex hadn't come before, I doubt anyone would have raved. Judge for yourself, but this was easily the most overrated book I've read this year.
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 December 8, 2011
The Marriage Plot is about three college students who study very challenging theories and philosophies. I understand that the discussion of semiotics and religion can be boring and downright pompous, but they're entirely relevant to the story and the characters therein. Maybe I'm in the minority opinion here, but I found Eugenides's discussions of those topics fascinating.
If you're turned off by obscure, academic references, then this isn't the book for you. However, if you don't mind doing a little homework, or simply re-reading a passage or two until it makes sense, then you may find this book as enjoyable as I do.
My advice: ignore the criticism that this book is self-indulgent, inaccessible, pretentious, or that Leonard's illness isn't believable. (In my humble opinion, those reviewers just haven't seen his form of depression before. It's real and pervasive. Most educators, such as myself, have or will encounter several "Leonards" in their lifetime.)
Though The Marriage Plot isn't Middlesex, it's still a fun read or worth your time.
on October 17, 2011
To say that Jeffrey Eugenides' latest novel, The Marriage Plot, has an air of pretension would probably be an understatement. It revolves around the lives of Brown University students. Pages upon pages are devoted to literary criticism, semiotics, religious theory, and biology. One of the main characters, an intelligent man battling manic depression, wallows in narcissistic self-examination. Post-graduation, the characters go off and do what the progeny of rich, white east coasters did in the late 1970s: traveled abroad.
Yet to regale The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex and act disgruntled over the subject matter of The Marriage Plot-which I've seen a lot of online-is disingenuous. Every time I see these complaints online, I think, "this is how Eugenides has always been!" He's an academic. If you have the opportunity to see him at a reading, that becomes apparent right away. Though the characters do a lot of the same soul-searching people go through at some point in life, ultimately, The Marriage Plot reflects a fairly small segment of the U.S. population. I expected as much. Did it bother me? No, not really.
The book's title comes from a course that Madeline, one of the three main protagonists, takes in undergrad called "The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James." The professor of the course posits:
"In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for divorce later?...[M]arriage didn't mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find a marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't."
Except you can-albeit with a few contemporary twists-in the form of this book. The lady: Madeline, a bookworm and aspiring "Victorianist." Her suitors: Leonard, her manic-depressive biologist boyfriend whose appearance is based on Axl Rose (NOT David Foster Wallace, as so many people keep saying); and Mitchell, a religious studies major intent on marrying Madeline after college. The three of them keep crossing paths during their time at Brown, then part after graduation as they try to find their way in the world. Madeline and Leonard maintain a rocky on-again-off-again relationship (his illness and narcissism being a large part of their drama), while Mitchell sets off for a year abroad in Europe and India.
Regardless of the academic jargon and first world problems the protagonists cocoon themselves in, I really enjoyed this book (I read more than half of it in one sitting). Eugenides' works can border on pretentious and referential at times, but one can't deny the beauty of his writing. My main problem with the book-really, with literary fiction penned by male authors in general-is that Madeline wasn't anywhere near as developed as Leonard and Mitchell. I can usually roll my eyes and look past this (and in a lot of ways, since I still ended up giving the book 4 stars, I DID roll my eyes and look past it). But considering that this book is predicated on the concept of "marriage plots" by the likes of Jane Austen-novels whose female characters are richly drawn-the fact that the "lady" of this book is so underdeveloped is kind of a big deal.
Quite the little paradox, no? The Marriage Plot is a book with some glaringly obvious faults, but when it's good, it's really damn good. I stand by that 4 star rating.
on December 15, 2011
Before I begin, let me clarify that I am a Doctoral student in Comparative Literature. As such, you might think that I would love this novel with its endless namedropping of theorists and page after page of ruminations on Derrida, etc. (After all, isn't that what we do for a living?) You couldn't be more wrong.
"The Marriage Plot" is a novel that feels ambitious, yet never quite fulfills its potential, especially stylistically. The story is written in a clunky, awkward manner (not the lovable or fascinating kind of awkward), and Jeffrey Eugenides relies more on namedropping (of other great writers/theorists) than his own creative genius. Here's a pro tip: Writing about your character discussing name-dropping does NOT make your book a 'parody', nor do I accept that you were, as the kids say these days, "doing it ironically". The pretentiousness of his subjects is a little too close to home for Eugenides to create the distance needed for parody.
A greater obstacle to the fluidity of his writing is Eugenides' desperation for 'intellectual' or 'creative' metaphors and similes, which seeps through the pages like a fat nerd boy sweating out his nervousness onto his World of Warcraft T-shirt while standing around thinking of how to impress a girl. (How's that for unnecessary similes?) Take for example this passage from the first page:
"There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn't trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for "Artistic," or "Passionate," thinking you could live with "Sensitive," secretly fearing "Narcissistic" and "Domestic," but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: "Incurably Romantic"."
Seriously, Jeffrey? First of all, what do you mean "in short"? I could've passed a kidney stone in the time it took me to type up that one "short" description. Second of all: This has to be most boring, pedestrian way to say "Madeleine HEARTS Mr. Darcy / Rochester". All that text only to end with a conclusion that isn't remotely funny, informative, or otherwise interesting. (We know the authors you listed, we got the 'incurably romantic' before the unnecessary simile) The novel is rife with these sort of silly and drawn out metaphors and similes. Surely Mr. Eugenides, Pullitzer Prize winner, doesn't need to try so hard and so transparently to prove his craftiness?
I can imagine the average reader may struggle with the semi-intellectual dialogues Mr. Eugenides indulgently creates for his characters, especially the discussions on semiotics and deconstruction, which are a yawnfest even for me (and I do this stuff 'professionally', by choice no less). However, the true struggle is on the side of the author, who visibly fights to verbalize his ideas, only to come up with somewhat weighty sounding but cumbersome and unnatural lines. (Again, not the good, 'experimental' kind of unnatural, just the awkward kind of unnatural that I see in my students' work when they're trying really hard to be profound and creative)
Ultimately, I regret wasting my time on this book. While the plot finally takes off a little (think: sickly bird not soaring eagle), with Leonard's illness and Mitchell's trip, the novel's style is off-putting and the pretentious attempts to pass off critical theory claptrap as ironic, or a parody, are simply unconvincing. His stylistic approach does get better further in, when Eugenides seems to relax a little and writes more naturally, focusing on the relationships between Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, but for most readers, I doubt that the ending is worth suffering through Jeffrey Eugenides' laborious prose. Unfortunately some contemporary authors seem to think that rambling paragraphs and stylistic deficiencies will make them look postmodern and unique - eccentric. The truth is far from it, as anyone who has read this novel probably knows.
TL:DR - Pretentious and contrived. Tries too hard.
on April 2, 2012
This book was sadly a serious let down. I really expected a lot more based on the reviews I read. In addition to the reviews, this author won a Pulitzer, which contributed to my high expectation. I don't enjoy giving bad reviews, so I won't come down too hard on this book, but I must admit I actually fell to sleep twice while trying to read this book! And trust me, this never happens!!! The boring cover art is a good representation of what you are going to be reading. In my personal opinion, none of the characters in the book are remotely likable. They are all really pathetic. Madeline is a sorry, sappy needy young woman. Mitchell is a lovelorn man who doesn't get the woman of his dreams and he spends the entire book wishing that he and Madeline would somehow be together. Leonard, clinically, manically depressed Leonard. That description sums up his character. All in all, the characters are full of teenage angst. Too much of it. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for any of them. Leonard is the only one who even has a "pass" on how sad his character is and that's only because he is genuinely sick. In my personal opinion, there is no real character growth for any of these unfortunate characters. How the characters are in the beginning is how they are at the end of the book...
Read the rest of my review here: shelfaddiction.weebly.com
Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides creates a story, set in the 1980s, in which the entire novel incorporates and illustrates the marriage plot, with three main characters all pursuing the goal of marriage. These young students at Brown University are all conscientious, with real academic interests, but they also follow their libidos into sometimes new directions with the goal of experiencing a "full" and "satisfying" life. Madeleine Hanna has just discovered semiotics and the excitement of this esoteric academic subject, while experiencing passion of a new kind; Mitchell Grammaticus, who has loved Madeleine since he first met her, is fascinated by religion and philosophy and tries to subsume his passion into doing good works; and Leonard Bankhead, with whom Madeleine is passionately in love, wants most to "become an adjective," a person whose ideas are so well known, that "Bankheadian" becomes as understandable an adjective as Joycean, Shakespearean, Faulknerian.
As Eugenides presents his characters, then backs up to reveal how the situations in which they find themselves have developed, he recreates the atmosphere of the period and the tension-filled relationships of students in their late teens and early twenties. Focusing on the nitty-gritty of their daily lives in their college years, the author makes them typical, recreating the academic excitement/frustration of their course work, the details of their every day lives, and the esoteric subject matter which absorbs them, when they are not dealing with their problems with parents and roommates. Mitchell, with no pressing love interests except for Madeleine, who has other plans, later follows his religious interests on a trip throughout the world--to Paris, Barcelona, Venice, Greece, and eventually India, where he works at the hospital set up by Mother Teresa. Leonard, by contrast, has had major problems for years with what was then called manic depression (now called bi-polar disorder), and he has accepted a research fellowship at the Pilgrim Lake Labs in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Madeleine's academic pursuits have been put on the back burner.
Firmly grounded in the reality of the individual lives of students in the 1980s, the novel does not really plow new ground, instead concerning itself with the self-absorbed and individual lives of the characters, often at the expense of universal insights. Leonard, for all his heartbreaking problems and his very insightful descriptions of his reactions to the lithium which "smoothes out" his moods, never really becomes for the reader the powerfully vibrant character that Madeleine sees him to be. Mitchell, discovering that he is not meant to a saint like Mother Teresa, and Madeleine discovering that idealism, no matter how well intentioned, is not meant to be a substitute for personal growth have attained new and painful knowledge of who they really are. What they choose to do with this new knowledge remains to be seen at the end of the novel. Mary Whipple