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The Marriage Plot: A Novel Paperback – September 4, 2012
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“Eugenides's ability to reinvent the timeless tale of love and soul-searching is swoon-worthy.” ―Vanity Fair
“I gorged myself on The Marriage Plot.” ―Geoff Dyer
“A masterful storyteller.” ―The Seattle Times
“Audacious and moving.” ―Time
“Extremely ambitious...surprising, and propulsive.” ―Chicago Sun-Times
“Deeply humane and elegantly constructed.” ―NPR
“The finale of The Marriage Plot is unexpected, beautiful, and---Dare we hope?---timeless.” ―The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A master of voice.” ―The Washington Post
“Wry, engaging, and beautifully constructed.” ―The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published by FSG to great acclaim in 1993, and he has received numerous awards for his work. In 2003, Eugenides received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex (FSG, 2002), which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and France's Prix Médicis.
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What sensitive reader hasn't thrilled to the last lines of the novel Jane Eyre? That era of these great wrenching love stories is now dead and gone. Or is it? Can these time-honored stories be rewritten for our current age, adapting to the accepted forces of sexual freedom and feminism? That's the main focus of Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel and the theme shows up early on. He writes about his key character: "Madeleine's love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love."
The "marriage plot" is a term used to categorize a storyline centered on the courtship rituals between a man and a woman and the potential obstacles they face on the way to the nuptial bed. It often involves a triangle - typically, the woman and man who are fated to be together and a strong rival for the woman's attention.
So it is here. Madeline Hanna - the center of this new marriage plot -- is a privileged Brown University student, a young English major whose books range from the complete Modern Library set of Henry James to "a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters." Her brain is tantalized by her readings of deconstructions like Roland Barthes in her Semiotics 211; her heart is firmly tethered to the literature of a century or two past. The other two sides of the love triangle are composed of Leonard Bankhead, a charismatic, sexually charged, intellectual, and intense college Darwinist and Mitchell Grammaticus, the spiritually inclined seeker who has been delving into various mythologies including Christian mysticism.
Leonard is not only tall, dark and brooding (he wears a leather jacket, chews tobacco and is uncontrollably moody. Think: David Foster Wallace), he is also bipolar.How do you carry on a relationship with someone who is hostage to his emotions and at the mercy of Lithium, which leaves him dulled and somnambulant, plump and often impotent...yet often magnetic? Indeed, there are times the reader will question exactly what the attraction is and why Madeleine succumbs to it. But wait - in the wings is the man who still carries the torch and who is currently overseas working out the big questions: the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Mr. Eugenides works within the confines of the traditional marriage plot, with wisps and tendrils of everything from Jane Eyre to Anna Karenina. And he does so smartly. He deconstructs not only the deconstruction of the marriage plot, but answers the question about why we still rejoice in this timeworn style. And he does it with page-turning fervor to show how reading about love affects the ways we fall in love. With devastating wit and a nod to intellectual and academic influences, Jeffrey Eugenides creates a fresh new way to approach the predictable marriage plot, revealing its relevance in today's world. It is an achievement.
THE MARRIAGE PLOT is not groundbreaking or unpredictable. Eugenides makes familiar, even prosaic pit stops in this loose and largely phallocentric love triangle set in 1982 on the cusp of graduation at Brown University, an academic institution which embraces postmodernism. Over-familiar themes get a boost because of the boisterous textual discussion of semiotics and Eugenides' lyrically lavish, fiery prose style and dry levity. He incorporated esoteric writings with mirth and madness, a combative charm. The most arresting parts of the book were the academic digressions.
The story explores the thesis of deconstruction, attainment, and illusion, pursuant to romantic love and individuation, while coming-of-age within a specific social construct--the 80's and on the continuum of feminism. Derrida and Barthes et al flood the pages and add exuberant passion to a long-winded, sometimes stagnant Cupid storyline. The narrative and plot reduce romance to the banal, and to chick lit territory, from a misogynistic window (however shrewdly disguised).
Eugenides points the slings and arrows of hearts and broken hearts with such lyrical, fetching effusion that the journey is deceptively captivating, even while it ambushes you to an obvious destination. He also explores the conundrum his female protagonist, Madeleine, faces in trying to reconcile feminism with her taste for Victorian love and literature, and her dependent tethering to a man-- her object of desire, Leonard. I was disappointed in the lack of new insight here, although it decorously reconstructed the concept of the title's origin--inspired from 18th and 19th century novels by Austen, Eliot, Henry James, and the Brontë sisters.
Madeleine Hanna, an intelligent and exceptionally beautiful protagonist, is an archetype that doesn't really stray from the time-honored territory, so as the story progresses, she is more watered down and reduced to making predictable choices. Leonard, her lover, is bipolar--a treatable disease, with complications-- the illness seduces its hostage.
However, Leonard's narcissism, a personality disorder, wasn't addressed philosophically or otherwise. His mood disorder was hammered relentlessly, though, and left nothing for the reader to imagine, and was taxing. But perhaps the author intended this as a pointed illustration of the brutal exhaustion of the disease, and he was successful. Madeleine's insights and actions, far from dawning, felt occasionally rehearsed and fusty. Eugenides, at the end of the day, condescends to the female heart and temerity.
Mitchell Grammaticus, the seeker, journeys to Europe and India to find some answers to his Gnosticism and inculcate the mysticism he desires; his unrequited love to Madeleine is balanced by his ability to explore the self independently, something Madeleine's character doesn't evoke beyond narrow parameters. Still, there is little that Mitchell says or thinks that hasn't been carved out before, although Eugenides does it with panache, as he is a first-class prose artist. There are filaments of his peer, Jonathan Franzen, in his style.
Just about every choice Madeleine makes is a rejoinder to men and their tacit value, not guided by anything individual. When she does evaluate her self-worth, it lacks conviction, or is guilt-ridden, as if a woman's or an individual's worth is not at her command outside of the sovereign male. That may be realistic in this story, paralleling Victorian romance, but its message is supercilious and ultimately lacks enterprise.
There's a lot of dense foliage gilding the lily, but it doesn't dig down to Kafka's plea. Yet, it is engaging and entertaining, and the narrative has a force to be reckoned with, a buoyant teasing that draws the reader close to the author. It kept the pages turning. Hailed as iconic, as well as iconoclastic, Eugenides' achievements precede this book. For this reader, he was skating on slick and thin ice, without cutting or boring through, but with an urgent velocity that leaves you breathless and warm on the one hand, constricted and cold on the other.