Saturday, January 7, 2012

The first book I read in 2012

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, which was released in October of 2011.

His Pulitzer Prize-winner Middlesex (published in 2002) is one of my favorite books of all time. So I had really looked forward to reading this, and had high expectations for it.

And maybe that's why I was a bit disappointed by it. I think I would have liked it more had I read it prior to reading Middlesex. Because I loved Eugenides' earlier work so much, I couldn't help but make comparisons.

The Marriage Plot is the first of his novels that isn't set in my hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. As much as I gripe about this place, a huge part of why I love Middlesex (and The Virgin Suicides, for that matter) is that I can picture the setting perfectly.

But anyway, I should stop gushing about Eugenides' earlier novels, and get to writing about The Marriage Plot.

It's centered around three graduates of Brown University: Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. The novel begins on graduation day in 1982 and follows them through their first year or so thereafter. The book is titled The Marriage Plot for two reasons: Madeleine, an English major, writes her senior thesis on that topic (Austen, James, Eliot, etc). Plus, the three aforementioned characters are part of a love triangle: Mitchell loves Madeline, but Madeline loves Leonard.

The book contains some really beautiful/amusing passages-- the type that I really admire Eugenides for as a writer. Here are a few of the things I highlighted:
  • "Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine's natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan" (25).
  • "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something-- anything. The House of Mirth, Daniel, Deronda-- to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world" (47).
  • "In Madeleine's face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable" (77).
But, as you might notice, I stopped highlighting things pretty early on. This is because Eugenides' statements seemed less profound than they would be had I liked the characters more.

I just couldn't bring myself to care about Madeleine. She wasn't entirely unlikable, exactly. But she reminded me of someone I went to high school with: someone who, however full of good intentions, had absolutely no idea how privileged she was.

I don't know. To me, she just seemed empty: completely devoid of a history that would explain her personality. She'd be fine as a minor character. But as the protagonist, she just wasn't complex enough for me.

I felt similarly about Mitchell, the guy who's in love with Madeleine. He's from Grosse Pointe, and I feel like I wouldn't have learned anything about him if I didn't have prior knowledge about his hometown. For example, of his graduation, Eugenides writes, "Deanie, in a blue blazer and London Fog raincoat, was beaming at the sight of his youngest son, having forgotten, apparently, that he'd never wanted Mitchell to go to college in the East and be ruined by liberals" (117). Because I know that Grosse Pointe is a notoriously conservative town, I laughed when I read that.

Leonard, meanwhile, is pretty interesting. He's manic depressive; I alternated between feeling compassion for him and being extremely annoyed by his failure to recognize how much he was hurting those around him. Leonard wasn't a very likable person, but he wasn't supposed to be. My opinion of Leonard is similar to that of the other characters in the book. And I admire any author whose talent can allow me to participate in a story that way.

Another thing I struggled with: Although a lot of the references to literary theory made me laugh, it all just got really old/pretentious after a while. Eugenides grew up in Grosse Pointe and then went on to attend both Brown and Stanford. He sort of reminds me of Edith Wharton in that he has access to the upper classes and takes advantage of his ability to reveal things about people like that. And I think that his aim here was satire, which is awesome. But, like everything else about this book, it fell short and all just seemed a bit over the top.

Although I enjoyed the ending (and I won't give anything away), I didn't enjoy the pages leading up to it enough for it to be really profound for me.

And while I want to blame my criticism of this book on my biases (the fact that I'm a huge sucker for good character development, as well as the geography thing), what friends of mine who read this before I did have said about it rang true to my experience. As my friend Liz put it, "I think it was good but it just wasn't... as good? I don't think [Eugenides] accomplished what he had intended to do."

I agree with that. This book had quite a few great moments, but was not, as a whole, great. And maybe that's just because I loved Middlesex so, so, so very much and therefore will always hold Eugenides to a ridiculously high standard as a writer, but still.

1 comment:

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