February 16, 2012
The Marriage Plot
The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides
2011 MacMillan Audio
Reader: David Pittu
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafes 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.
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.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it sounds like the intimate journal of our own lives.
After reading Wendy’s glowing review for The Marriage Plot, I decided to throw my name in the hat and try to win the audio version of the book in her giveaway late last year. I was thrilled to win and began listening as soon as I finished my previous audio book. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the book nearly as much as Wendy did or nearly as well as Eugenide’s previous novel Middlesex (which made my Best Of 2007 list). I found the plot terribly depressing and didn’t care for any of the main characters. I almost quit listening on several occasions, but kept at it, hoping it was merely a dislike for the reader and not the story. I enjoyed all the early references to literature, but they weren’t enough to sustain my appreciation for this over-hyped novel.
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 Bronte 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 has 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.”
These were the books in the room where Madeleine lay, with a pillow over her head, on the morning of her college graduation. She’d read each and every one, often multiple times, frequently underlining passages, but that was no help to her now.
Apparently I’m not in the minority. Amazon readers are all over the board with almost as many 1 and 2 star ratings as 4 and 5 stars. I’m not sorry I read (or rather, listened to) the book, but it’s not one I can recommend, nor will I listen to the audio a second time. In spite of my overall reaction to the novel, I believe it would make for an excellent book club selection. There’s a lot to discuss and it would be interesting to see which character is most liked or disliked. Stay tuned for my give-away.
Final thoughts: I loved Middlesex, so I certainly won’t dismiss Eugenides based on this disappointment.
The Marriage Plot is a character-driven, literary novel which will appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction. Also readers who survived college and its aftermath during the early 1980s in the United States will find a lot to love about Eugenides’ latest effort. I found the novel to be an intellectually stimulating, greatly satisfying reading which I can highly recommend. (Wendy, of Caribousmom)
Go here to read Wendy's complete review for The Marriage Plot.