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The Marriage Plot: A Novel Hardcover – October 11, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2011: Even among authors, Jeffrey Eugenides possesses a rare talent for being able to inhabit his characters. In The Marriage Plot, his third novel and first in ten years (following the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex), Eugenides describes a year or so in the lives of three college seniors at Brown in the early 80s. There is Madeleine, a self-described “incurable romantic” who is slightly embarrassed at being so normal. There is Leonard, a brilliant, temperamental student from the Pacific Northwest. And completing the triangle is Mitchell, a Religious Studies major from Eugenides’ own Detroit. What follows is a book delivered in sincere and genuine prose, tracing the end of the students’ college days and continuing into those first, tentative steps toward true adulthood. This is a thoughtful and at times disarming novel about life, love, and discovery, set during a time when so much of life seems filled with deep portent. --Chris Schluep
“Wry, engaging and beautifully constructed.” ―William Deresiewicz, The New York Times Book Review
“[The Marriage Plot] is sly, fun entertainment, a confection for English majors and book lovers . . . Mr. Eugenides brings the period into bright detail--the brands of beer, the music, the affectations--and his send-ups of the pretensions of chic undergraduate subcultures are hilarious and charmingly rendered . . . [His] most mature and accomplished book so far” ―Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
“No one's more adept at channeling teenage angst than Jeffrey Eugenides. Not even J. D. Salinger . . . It's in mapping Mitchell's search for some sort of belief that might fill the spiritual hole in his heart and Madeleine's search for a way to turn her passion for literature into a vocation that this novel is at its most affecting, reminding us with uncommon understanding what it is to be young and idealistic, in pursuit of true love and in love with books and ideas.” ―Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“This is a story about being young and bright and lost, a story Americans have been telling since Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Our exceptionally well-read but largely untested graduates still wonder: How should I live my life? What can I really believe in? Whom should I love? Literature has provided a wide range of answers to those questions--Lose Lady Brett! Give up on Daisy! Go with Team Edward!--but in the end, novels aren't really very good guidebooks. Instead, they're a chance to exercise our moral imagination, and this one provides an exceptionally witty and poignant workout.” ―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“If there is a writer to whom Eugenides appears connected, it is not Wallace but Jonathan Franzen. They are less than a year apart in age, and while Franzen got a head start, the two, who are both with the same publisher, are on similar publishing schedules. Last year, Franzen's Freedom was a bestseller; like The Marriage Plot, it's a robust, rich story of adults in a love triangle. Eugenides benefits by the comparison: This book is sweeter, kinder, with a more generous heart. What's more, it is layered with exactly the kinds of things that people who love novels will love.” ―Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
“Eugenides steers effortlessly through the intertwining tales of his three protagonists, shifting seamlessly among their three viewpoints and overlapping their stories in a way that's easy to follow and never labored. His prose is smooth but never flashy, and his eye for the telling detail or gesture is keen. Slowly but confidently he fleshes out his characters, and as they slowly accrue weight and realism, readers will feel increasingly opinionated about the choices they make . . . It's heavy stuff, but Eugenides distinguishes himself from too many novelists who seem to think a somber tone equates to a serious purpose. The Marriage Plot is fun to read and ultimately affirming.” ―Patrick Condon, San Francisco Chronicle
“Eugenides, a master storyteller, has a remarkable way of twisting his narrative in a way that seems effortless; taking us backward and forward in time to fill in details . . . For these characters, who don't live in Jane Austen's world, no simple resolution will do for them in the world. And yet you close this book with immense satisfaction--falling in love just a bit yourself, with a new kind of marriage plot.” ―Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times
“Jeffrey Eugenides, in his glorious new novel, mines our thrall and eternal unease around sex, love and marriage . . . At its core, The Marriage Plot is besotted with books, flush with literary references. It seems coyly designed to become the volume all former English majors take to their breasts.” ―Karen Long, The Plain Dealer
“There has been a storybook quality to much American fiction recently--larger-than-life, hyper-exuberant, gaudy like the superhero comics and fairy tales that have inspired it. By sticking to ordinary human truth, Eugenides has bucked this trend and written his most powerful book yet.” ―Zachary Lazar, Newsday
“Befitting [Eugenides's] status as that rare author who bridges both highbrow book clubs and best-seller lists, his third novel is a grand romance in the Austen tradition--one that also deconstructs the very idea of why we'd still find pleasure in such a timeworn narrative style. It's a book that asks why we love to read, yet is so relentlessly charming, smart and funny that it answers its own question.” ―David Daley, USA TODAY
“There are serious pleasures here for people who love to read.” ―Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“Eugenides's first novel since 2002's Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex so impressively, ambitiously breaks the mold of its predecessor that it calls for the founding of a new prize to recognize its success both as a novel--and as a Jeffrey Eugenides novel. Importantly but unobtrusively set in the early 1980s, this is the tale of Madeleine Hanna, recent Brown University English grad, and her admirer Mitchell Grammaticus, who opts out of Divinity School to walk the earth as an ersatz pilgrim. Madeleine is equally caught up, both with the postmodern vogue (Derrida, Barthes)--conflicting with her love of James, Austen, and Salinger--and with the brilliant Leonard Bankhead, whom she met in semiotics class and whose fits of manic depression jeopardize his suitability as a marriage prospect. Meanwhile, Mitchell winds up in Calcutta working with Mother Theresa's volunteers, still dreaming of Madeleine. In capturing the heady spirit of youthful intellect on the verge, Eugenides revives the coming-of-age novel for a new generation The book's fidelity to its young heroes and to a superb supporting cast of enigmatic professors, feminist theorists, neo-Victorians, and concerned mothers, and all of their evolving investment in ideas and ideals is such that the central argument of the book is also its solution: the old stories may be best after all, but there are always new ways to complicate them.” ―Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“In Eugenides' first novel since the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex (2002), English major and devotee of classic literature Madeleine Hanna is a senior at Reagan-era Brown University. Only when curiosity gets the best of her does she belly up to Semiotics 211, a bastion of postmodern liberalism, and meet handsome, brilliant, mysterious Leonard Bankhead. Completing a triangle is Madeleine's friend Mitchell, a clear-eyed religious-studies student who believes himself her true intended. Eugenides' drama unfolds over the next year or so. His characteristically deliberate, researched realization of place and personality serve him well, and he strikes perfectly tuned chords by referring to works ranging from Barthes' Lovers' Discourse to Bemelmans' Madeline books for children. The remarkably à propos title refers to the subject of Madeleine's honors thesis, which is the Western novel's doing and undoing, in that, upon the demise, circa 1900, of the marriage plot, the novel ‘didn't mean much anymore,' according to Madeleine's professor and, perhaps, Eugenides. With this tightly, immaculately self-contained tale set upon pillars at once imposing and of dollhouse scale, namely, academia (‘College wasn't like the real world,' Madeleine notes) and the emotions of the youngest of twentysomethings, Eugenides realizes the novel whose dismantling his characters examine.” ―Annie Bostrom, Booklist (starred review)
“A stunning novel--erudite, compassionate and penetrating in its analysis of love relationships. Eugenides focuses primarily on three characters, who all graduate from Brown in 1982. One of the pieces of this triangle is Madeleine Hanna, who finds herself somewhat embarrassed to have emerged from a "normal" household in New Jersey (though we later find out the normality of her upbringing is only relative). She becomes enamored with Leonard, a brilliant but moody student, in their Semiotics course, one of the texts being, ironically, Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, which Madeleine finds disturbingly problematic in helping her figure out her own love relationship. We discover that Leonard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his first year at Brown, and his struggle with mood swings throughout the novel is both titanic and tender. The third major player is Mitchell, a Religious Studies major who is also attracted to Madeleine but whose reticence she finds both disturbing and incomprehensible. On graduation day, Leonard has a breakdown and is hospitalized in a mental-health ward, and Madeleine shows her commitment by skipping the festivities and seeking him out. After graduation, Leonard and Madeleine live together when Leonard gets an internship at a biology lab on Cape Cod, and the spring after graduation they marry, when Leonard is able to get his mood swings under temporary control. Meanwhile Mitchell, who takes his major seriously, travels to India seeking a path--and briefly finds one when he volunteers to work with the dying in Calcutta. But Mitchell's road to self-discovery eventually returns him to the States--and opens another opportunity for love that complicates Madeleine's life. Dazzling work--Eugenides continues to show that he is one of the finest of contemporary novelists.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“‘The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel.' So says Trollope in Barchester Towers, one of those English novels where ‘the marriage plot' thrived until it was swept aside by 20th-century reality. Now Roland Barthes's contention that ‘the lover's discourse is today of an extreme solitude' better sums up the situation. Or so English literature–besotted Madeleine, 1980s Brown graduating senior, comes to discover. Giving in to the zeitgeist, Madeleine takes a course on semiotics and meets Leonard, who's brilliant, charismatic, and unstable. They've broken up, which makes moody spiritual seeker Mitchell Grammaticus happy, since he pines for Madeleine. But on graduation day, Madeleine discovers that Leonard is in the hospital--in fact, he is a manic depressive with an on-again, off-again relationship with his medications--and leaps to his side. So begins the story of their love (but does it work out?), as Mitchell heads to Europe and beyond for his own epiphanies. VERDICT Your standard love triangle? Absolutely not. This extraordinary, liquidly written evocation of love's mad rush and inevitable failures will feed your mind as you rapidly turn the pages. Highly recommended.” ―Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (starred review)
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This novel - set in the early 1980's - follows the lives and is told from the point of view of three main characters.
The first is Madeleine Hanna and she is graduating from Brown University and she is in some distress. She has just broken up with her boyfriend Leonard and she is not sure what she is going to do next. Madeleine is an English and literature major and she hopes to go to Yale for graduate school. We read early on how focused she is on classic literature and her love of books predominates her life. That is in addition to her boyfriend Leonard.
Leonard Bankhead is a fellow student at Brown, albeit from a completely different background. Whereas Madeleine came from a well-to-do academic family, Leonard on the other hand comes from a dysfunctional family from Portland Oregon. He is a brilliant student and a very handsome guy, but Leonard also seems prone to moodiness. More about that later in this review.
Madeleine is passionately in love with Leonard, but there is our third main narrator who is passionately in love with Madeleine. His name is Mitchell and he is also a fellow student. He is from Detroit and comes from a stable and loving Greek family. Mitchell has alway felt that he and Madeleine would some day get married. He just hopes that she will feel that way as well.
We know that Mitchell is a sensitive, good guy who is searching for his own morality and place in the world. After graduation he goes on long trip to Europe and India with his good friend to do some soul searching and decide whether he wants to come back to the U.S. to get a degree in religious studies.
It took me a few chapters to get into this novel. There is a lot of academic discussion about literature and theory and that slowed me down a bit. In fact I would see whole pages with no paragraph breaks and I was tempted to skim.
But soon enough I was very taken with the story and I ended up really, really liking this book. Not only do these 3 characters feel and act so real, we begin to feel a bond and want to root for each of them.
Will Madeleine end up with Leonard? Will Mitchell end up getting the girl? We won't know till the end, but know that the ending is ultimately satisfying.
One last comment, and this is s a tiny bit of a spoiler so do not read further if you don't want to know anything more even though I really think knowing this won't detract from your enjoyment of the story - this novel gives the best first person description of mental illness I may have ever read. In particular, depression and being bi-polar, referred to as manic-depression back in the 1980's. Not only do we view and understand its horrors from the person suffering, we see what it's like for those who love and take care of these people.
Middlesex is a great book. The Marriage Plot isn't. If you limit your reading to great books exclusively, you should skip this book. But the fact that it isn't "great" doesn't keep The Marriage Plot from being "good." Authors capable of great books should try new things - not all of those things are going to be 100% successful. If somebody was going to read one Eugenides book ever, I'd tell them to read Middlesex. But how realistic is that? Unless you are limiting your reading life to the best book by every single author, there is no harm in reading more than one book by an accomplished author.
The book is about three recent college graduates in a love triangle in 1982. Mitchell, a religious studies major, loves Madeleine. Madeleine, an English major, loves Leonard. And Leonard, a biology/philosophy major who seems to be a fictionalized David Foster Wallace, loves Madeleine, but his Manic Depression represents a substantial obstacle to their happiness. As their majors may suggest, these three live in the world of ideas, even when they act in shallow and stereotypical ways. And they do. Frequently. Ideas are one thing, Eugenides seems to be suggesting. Using them to live in a better way is a whole other skill set, and one that college doesn't really prepare you for. Despite the frequently digressions into various theories and intellectual fads, there isn't anything too challenging in this book. Most of it is strictly on the undergraduate level. Every reader may not LIKE it, but every reader should be capable of comprehending it. In fact, this novel struck me as anti-intellectual. Leonard isn't helped at all by anything he learned. In fact, his pride in his own ability to think his way out of problems ends up complicating his life substantially. Madeleine winds up making a series of horrible decisions and finally chooses her future career path on the basis of pleasure -- a luxury available to somebody who never has to worry about money. Mitchell, though capable of substantial intellectual achievements, decides to heed the small and quiet voice of God instead.
The characters aren't equally successful. Madeleine felt like a cipher to me at too many points in the book. I wish that Eugenides hadn't felt the need to borrow so much of David Foster Wallace for Leonard (and if this truly wasn't what he was going for - if he was, implausibly, going for Axl Rose -- surely some editor could have pointed it out to him). It was just too distracting for me. I was confused by some of the decisions. I found myself wanting to know more about unhappy and brazen Alwyn, Madeleine's sister. She was brought in seemingly just so she could snoop through a medicine cabinet and reveal to the family that Leonard was mentally ill - but I wanted to know more about her and was disappointed when Eugenides just sent her home for the rest of the book.
With all that, this was a four-star book for me because I greatly enjoyed reading it. I thought about it when I wasn't reading it. There were things that could have been better, but I never found it dull. The worst I can say about it is that there were times when I was just too aware that I was reading a fiction, a story made up within somebody's head. Madeleine lacked the spark that would have made her truly alive for me. And Leonard, seemingly borrowed almost whole-cloth, had too much real life to fit comfortably into the 1982 period piece that Eugenides has created.
There is no good reason to set this in 1982-1983-- I was expecting that the couple who marry would then be explored 20 years later-- except, I suspect, that it is a favorite year of Jeffrey Eugenides'. He got at least one detail wrong: The Globe Theatre, which Mitchell briefly thinks he'd like to visit, didn't open until 1997.
For all the attempts to get in the heads of the three main characters, I couldn't help feeling that it was only Mitchell who felt real. Madeleine felt like what a smart college boy would think a girl like her thinks. He tried, but it didn't work. And her WASPy parents are a total cliche, and again, do not feel real. I did not understand why we had to spend so much time in Leonard's lab with his yeast cells-- that really felt like authorial showing off to me.
There are a couple of good novels in here dying to get out-- the story of a troubled first marriage can be good. The story of unrequited love can be good. But they don't mesh and in the end I was just left with "that's it?" Seems like a lot of fuss over nothing.