Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011
Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374203054

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. ....

My Thoughts:
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is a coming of age novel set in the early 1980s. It tells the story of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell, three college students from Brown University. As Eugenides himself says "The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels." He explained to the Calgary Herald, "At 20 you can really change your philosophy of the world by reading a single book, or by one chance meeting." "That is my point about The Marriage Plot: you read books and they change your life."  "But it is also an exploration of mental illness, failed romance and one man’s battle with religious faith."  (interviews found in Economist, Christian Science Monitor, and others) 
The marriage plot in literature is the classic love triangle found in nineteenth century literature. You have a  beautiful woman (Madeleine) who is falling for the wrong man, a handsome man with a secret (Leonard), while the less attractive but better man is pining for her from afar (Mitchell). At the beginning of The Marriage Plot there is a lot of literary theory but then Eugenides purposefully lessens the literary discussions as the novel progresses.

The characters are immature, egomaniacal young people who are searching for meaning in life and their way in the world. They are so self obsessed that it can be painful to be privy to their every emotion and feeling. Since these students are only a few years younger than I was when I went to college, I recognize them. Clearly they are a product of their times. I also didn't like them very much. But then who, as an adult years past the  time of life these characters are experiencing, would really choose to spend time with these self-centered people?
Even though I didn't like the characters for most of the novel, I have to credit Eugenides skill as a writer that I continued to read and was interested and invested in the characters enough that I needed to see what happened to them and if there was any personal growth. Finally, I respect Eugenides for the ending, which could have predictably gone one way but didn't.
On January 22, 2012 Jeffrey Eugenides was among the nominees announced for the National Book Critics Circle awards for The Marriage Plot.
For me The Marriage Plot is very highly recommended, with a cautionary statement: it really wasn't until the very end, the last sentence, that I knew what my rating would be. 

To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. 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.” opening

She’d made this plan with them two months ago, in April, and now here they were, at the appointed time, in their eager, dependable way. That Alton and Phyllida had driven up from New Jersey to see her graduate, that what they were here to celebrate today wasn’t only her achievement but their own as parents, had nothing wrong or unexpected about it. The problem was that Madeleine, for the first time in her life, wanted no part of it. She wasn’t proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented. pg. 5

“I thought you might care,” Madeleine said. “Since you’re my friend.”
“Right,” Mitchell said, his voice suddenly sarcastic. “Our wonderful friendship! Our ‘friendship’ isn’t a real friendship because it only works on your terms. You set the rules, Madeleine. If you decide you don’t want to talk to me for three months, we don’t talk. Then you decide you do want to talk to me because you need me to entertain your parents—and now we’re talking again. We’re friends when you want to be friends, and we’re never more than friends because you don’t want to be. And I have to go along with that.”
“I’m sorry,” Madeleine said, feeling put-upon and blindsided. “I just don’t like you that way.”
“Exactly!” Mitchell cried. “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”
Madeleine reacted as if she’d been slapped. She was outraged, hurt, and defiant all at once.
“You’re such a”—she tried to think of the worst thing to say—“you’re such a jerk!” She was hoping to remain imperious, but her chest was stinging, and, to her dismay, she burst into tears. pg. 19
That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical - because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in. pg. 21
Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.
"Give me my book," she said.
"I'll give it back if you come to the party."
Madeleine understood why her roommates trivialized her feelings. They'd never been in love, not really. They didn't know what she was dealing with. pg. 82


Audra said...

Great review -- I'm not sure I could stand the characters as they seem too...self-absorbed? ... but often times in the end it's that reason the book/story sticks with me. You've seriously tempted me!

Lori L said...

They are self-absorbed. It seems that a major complaint about The Marriage Plot is that the characters are unlikeable... but that happens in real life too. On the other hand, there are a lot of literary references that could make the novel for many people.

Jeanne said...

Love the analysis of why people major in English!

Lori L said...

That was a fun quote, wasn't it Jeanne?