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The Marriage Plot: A Novel
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on March 8, 2017
The Marriage Plot is an entertaining book, although it is not without its flaws. The central characters are interesting and well developed, some more so than others, although all are limited and flawed. Because the age of the characters runs from their senior year of college to the year or so following graduation they are lacking in maturity and experience, which may make them uninteresting to many readers.

The novel pokes fun at post-modern literary criticism. However, it is itself an example of what is mocked earlier in the book when the conclusion of the book shows that the novel is really about ... itself. The reader cannot be certain if the author is being ironic here.

A major theme running through this text is reading, and the book, The Marriage Plot, is about marriage plots in a variety of senses, not the least of which is the fact that the novel itself is a marriage plot.

The strongest parts of the book are the trials and tribulations of one of the character's struggles with bipolar disorder. These descriptions are the most vivid sections of the book. Other characters are not quite as fully realized.

The author's handling of time is somewhat haphazard as he takes the reader erratically from one point in time to another with no transition. The reader often has to ask, "when are we?"
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on October 29, 2017
Perhaps it was the topic, perhaps it was the characters, but after reading this book I found it so absolutely forgettable that I truly managed to forget that I actually had read it.

It sat on my Kindle reading list, until I read it again from start to finish. It was familiar, but anticlimactic like reliving a not-very-exciting dream sequence. As a college memoir, it is comprehensive and journalistic and not that far out of the ordinary.

The best thing about this book is the dark foray into living with an individual with mental illness, but even that is done superficially and might have been more moving if the writer had been able to help us get caught up in the madness of the character, rather than keeping us at such a "safe" distance.

Would love to see this rewritten from a place of passionate connection. This is a young adult love story and we all remember the throes of passion, and pain of loss, defeat and heart-break, but none of that is reflected in the story-telling. It reads as Love on Prozac.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 10, 2014
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.

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.

Highly recommended.
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Most of the critical reviews seem to fault this novel for A) not being Middlesex: A Novel and B) having multiple references to material learned by those who have a basic liberal arts degree (I went to a state school and, trust me, there is nothing especially difficult in this book). There are also a lot of reviewers who are unhappy that they don't "like" the characters, but - after this mention -- I am going to just pretend that the phenomenon of supposedly mature readers needing to "like" characters in novels doesn't exist. Mild spoilers below.

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.
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on March 10, 2013
I really don't understand the editorial raves for this book. Yes, it is written pretty well, with lots of detail and some interesting obserevations, but at its heart it is blatantly nostalgic and somewhat empty. I went to Stanford so the outtakes from academic life and the intellectual stuff didn't frighten or intimidate me, but I wondered why they were there.

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.
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on December 10, 2013
I loved Middlesex and found this effort by Eugenides disappointing. It read as if the author were showing off his ornamental knowledge by dropping the names of as many streets in European cities as possible and summarizing the back flaps of a variety of totemic works post-modern literary theory and feminist criticism. His jaunt through Lacan, Kristeva, Lacan, and Derrida comes across as little more than name dropping. The book purports to be about the maturing of three recent college graduates but Eugenides tells and does not show how these characters evolve. There is no interior view of the three protagonists, there is nothing in the text to reveal motivations, insecurities or reactions. The discussion of bipolar is outdated and appears stripped straight from the first article that pops up in a Google search for "manic depression."

I suppose I could be biased because like the protagonists, I attended an East Coast ivy league school only a few years after the setting of the book, and I read many of these texts in my own literary theory classes and religious studies classes. Perhaps a reader less familiar with deconstructionism would find it less superficial. But I suspect instead that such a reader would simply find Eugenides's superficial treatment of semiotics inscrutable. Which appears to be one of the author's goals. In the "I could explain it to you but you wouldn't understand" mode.

I give it a big "meh" with a side helping of irritation.
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VINE VOICEon November 23, 2011
This absorbing novel explores the lives of three young people in the early 1980s. We first meet Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard as seniors at Brown University on graduation day. All three in their own ways are idealistic and also confused. They are also entangled in a complicated emotional triangle with Madeleine at the apex.

What Eugenides has tried to do is take the traditional plot of some of the classic Victorian novels by authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot -- what Madeleine calls "the marriage plot" because these books always end with the marriage of the female protagonist -- and adapt and update it for our times.

His technique is to switch between each of the three main characters so that one sees things through their eyes. As author and narrator, he has immense empathy for all three, flawed though they each are, and tries very hard not to take sides.

Madeleine, an English major, is bright but naive. She throws herself into a romance with Leonard who initially comes across as mysterious and sexy and then as unbelievably cruel -- until we learn that he is in the grip of bipolar disorder.

Mitchell, who is desperately in love with Madeleine, is brainy and intense, a seeker of spiritual truth and enlightenment. After graduating, he travels to Europe and then to India seeking a path toward goodness.

The chapters told from Leonard's viewpoint are the most disturbing and probably the author's greatest achievement in this book. We experience the heights and depths of the disease through Leonard's eyes -- as well as through Madeleine's.

Reading this book, we grow to like each of these characters, even as we wince at some of their actions. Eugenides plays a neat trick on the reader. One keeps expecting the book to follow the principle of "the marriage plot" that he has laid out -- but the author has other plans. "Reader, I married him" may be a nice formula for Jane Eyre but life must go on after the end of the book. The traditional "happy ending," he suggests, as a literary trope may give the reader some temporary satisfaction but that is not in fact how life works.

After reading and absorbing this book and thinking about it for a few days, I feel it could have done with some editing. It felt a bit padded -- as if the author set out to write a Victorian-length novel but ran out of things to say. Some of Mitchell's spiritual musings got a bit tired. But overall, it was both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
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on February 11, 2013
I found this book richly entertaining for its cleverness, sense of humor, and realistic portrayal of the manic depressive mind. Eugenides impresses in writing about the extensive use of the `marriage plot' in Victorian literature through the eyes of one of its students, Madeleine Hanna, while simultaneously writing her into a modern marriage plot of her own as two young men, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, vie for her love.

Anyone who's ever read Victorian literature can recall a generic moment, usually around two thirds of the way into the novel, when you hope that either the wrong guy won't propose or that the woman of his dreams will smartly reject him. Typically this moment comes at the height of a crescendo, and then we see how the private worlds of these characters react to the engagement as their fate plays out. Eugenides accomplishes a similar build up to similarly placed climactic moment, but does so with all of the modern detail that never would've been included in any of the Victorian classics - everything from dirty pre-marital sex to random homosexual encounters to the darkest depths of coping with manic depression. Realistic romanticism, I suppose you could call it.

Though I enjoyed this novel immensely, there are two reasons I'm giving it four instead of five stars:

1) The first half of the book was a bit slow and was a bit heavy on the semi-obscure literary references. I read some other reviews here on goodreads that really trashed Eugenides for this, but for me it was mostly just a bit on the superfluous side.

2) Without revealing too much detail here, to avoid spoilers, there's a particular aspect of the plot on which it seems to me Eugenides chickened out. It involves a letter sent from Mitchell to Madeleine . . . my gut instinct tells me that Eugenides wanted to do more with this letter and its arrival, but backed off, perhaps for fear of making the ending too grandiose?

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and intend to read other Eugenides' titles, which I've heard are better reads than this one.
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on December 11, 2012
The 1980's seem a distant past in America. This was the time after the hippies had settled into married life, student anger over a horrible war in a far off Asian land had simmered down, the dawn of enormous scientific innovations was beginning to change the way Americans lived. Perhaps most importantly this is the time when American women found their full voice -- educated in the same schools as American men, honored academically as evenly as men, more assured and demanding of not only equal rights but of equal emotional satisfaction.

In many ways, the plot of Jeffrey Eugenides book, the Marriage Plot is an abrupt departure from earlier forms of romantic literature. In these books, mostly written by British authors, the heroine is frequently emotionally unstable, upwardly mobile, madly desirous of a suitable marriage to a suitable man, and deeply dependent on male approval. In Eugenides' book, the heroine is quite different: Madeleine Hanna is by far the most level-headed, capable, emotionally grounded force in the book. The two male planets that revolve around her sun are, in one case, mentally unstable, if not at times mentally deranged, or, in the other case, a dreamily detached figure in a demanding world.

The two males meet Madeleine at Brown, in the early-1980's. Each is highly intelligent, one pursuing a late-blooming involvement in genetic biology and the other searching religious and philosophical literature for some way to make sense out of a tough world. These two interests are finely balanced, just as the personalities of these two males are. They stand at opposite ends of knowledge: one at the dawn of the far deeper understanding of disease and human traits through the exploding field of genetics and the other at the search for eternal truths through an ambitious search of religions and philosophical truths. This makes for tough going at times, taking the reader into the intricacies of yeast genetics and even, of all things, the sexual life of yeast or a compex discussion of comparative religions. One could find all of this to be annoyingly difficult but, at the same time, Eugenides is telling us the story of two brilliant but unbalanced individuals. It is through their thoughts that we learn of their obsessions. And their obsessions are not with Madeline but with themselves.

On another level, the story that Eugenides tells is far more challenging than the conflict between religion and science. It tells the story of a deeply flawed love affair, one that spills out from the Brown campus to New York, Paris, Monte Carlo, the hills of New Jersey and chilly Cape Cod. Madeleine gives all she has to this relationship but, in the end, it is not enough. Madeline could be found to be a strange duck: she seems to be attached to Leonard for very little reason. Leonard, her husband, is unable to resolve massive psychological problems, made even more excruciating by his mental potential. Mitchell has immersed himself in the farthest reaches of philosophy. He plays an important, though subsidiary, role in the novel. Mitchell has more than enough intellect to challenge and even at times to excite Madeleine but he is no match for Leonard's brilliance and sexuality.

This is not your standard marriage plot as it is written in the English novel of the late-18th and 19th centuries. It is totally modern, plays a totally different game, and tells an almost scary tale of two flawed males, neither of whom can fully deal with the demands of a very modern woman.

This is Eugenides third novel, preceded by the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex. This one has the same humor, the same urgent plot lines, and the same sense of place: this one starts in Providence, Rhode Island and then travels to Europe, Oregon, India and then back to western New Jersey. It is a wild and thrilling ride through human emotion and deep thoughts. This is great read but be prepared to do a bit of underlining and rereading.
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on November 21, 2012
Eugenides latest novel, The Marriage Plot, opens with Madeleine on graduation day at Brown University in 1982. He introduces her as a bookworm who decided on her college major based on her love of reading. Not before long, the narrative circles back in time and we learn about Madeleine's college life. Here, Eugenides expertly depicts and pokes fun of the complete nerdiness and intellectual competitiveness of the Ivy League liberal arts college experience. I can imagine that the tireless references to obscure academics, writers, and concepts could be off putting to some readers. As for myself, I loved it.

In her junior year of college, Madeleine takes a seminar called The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James. The marriage plot describes an entire class of stories about eligible young women and their journey to the altar. Think of Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice. They end with weddings and the implication of a happily ever after. I was impressed by this new (at least new to me) way of categorizing plots. Simultaneously refreshing and nostalgic. It was just like being back in college again when you could just live on ideas instead of a salary.

And so, having explained what a marriage plot is, Eugenides proceeds to set up his own story with one eligible young woman (Madeleine) and her two suitors (Leonard the scientist and Mitchell the spiritual seeker). More so than the story itself, I was curious about what the author would do with the marriage plot. Was his novel going to be yet another marriage plot? Would it end with a wedding? Did he want to write something more subversive? Would this be an anti-marriage plot? What did the author as an artist want to say?

Those were the questions in my mind that propelled me through this novel, which is sort of interesting, because usually the question that drives most people through a story is "What's going to happen next?" Thus, I wonder if the author placed too much emphasis on what he wanted to say as an artist rather than the story itself, because, let's be honest here, the story itself isn't all that thrilling. Sure, the words themselves are beautifully crafted and instantly engaging. Sure, the narrative technique is inventive and near flawless. He employs a series of circular narratives (not a technical term). He constantly circles back in time to keep interest up and the story going. But, take a step back, and well, there's just not much of a compelling plot here. All in all, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, I was propelled through the novel wondering what Eugenides wanted to say. Still, a bit more plot would've been nice.
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