Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “the marriage plot”

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #13: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

            I think there have been three or four reviews of The Marriage Plot so far on the CBR4 blog, which really encouraged me to read the book. I have loved other books by Eugenides, and after seeing reviews I got on a super long wait list at the library. I really enjoyed reading this book, in part because it felt so relatable in some ways. The novel follows three recent college graduates in the year or so after graduating from Brown University in the early 1980’s.

Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are all somewhat lost in their own way, finding fellowships, applying to grad school, and traveling abroad in the same way that my friends and I did. For me, the characters drifted in and out of likeability, but I wasn’t as attached to the characters as I was to their story. Reading The Marriage Plot felt like following the lives of distant college friends – ones I didn’t like too much and wasn’t extremely close with, but I was still interested in snooping in their lives, seeing what happened to them and how they turned out. I think it’s a testament to Eugenides’ writing that I was still so engrossed in the novel and enjoyed it as much as I did while writing not-so-likeable characters. Their flaws made the novel much more interesting, and I cringed when they said horrible things to one another, made terrible decisions, or when I thought they were losing control.

The writing switches between perspectives of the three characters, and I think that was a fantastic way to flesh out the story, while still keeping the internal narratives of each person separate. I loved it when Eugenides switched between characters, so that I could see another point of view on the same event, seeing what Mitchell thought about Leonard and Madeleine, or a new take on Leonard and Mitchell’s interactions. Overall, this was a pretty great book (I’ve recommended it to three friends already), and if you’ve read and enjoyed other novels by Eugenides, you’ll definitely like this one.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR4 Review #25: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Two things make love triangles so damn appealing – they often occur in real life, and they feed our fantasies about being desirable.   There’s no irritating cliche here, where it’s obvious who the protagonist will choose, and the third party is there to solely create artificial hardship.  The Marriage Plot is about real, raw love for two people and Madeline’s frustrating inability to choose.  Life is messy, and The Marriage Plot accurately reflects the recklessness of youth, the paralysis of college graduation, and what it means to find yourself in your twenties.

Madeline is an upper middle class, Victorian romance-obsessed English major desperate for her own Mr. Darcy. For Leonard, facing a grueling life long battle with bipolar disorder, Madeline is an anchor, a life raft saving him from his illness. For Mitchell, a religious studies major struggling with what he believes, Madeline is his spiritual ideal,  his destiny.

Madeline loves Leonard, partially for his illness. She is graduating from college, with no job, no idea of to do – and she wants to be needed. So she sets up house with Leonard. Mitchell, despite her protests, is “the one who got away” – the one without the stigma of mental illness, the one who reminds her of her youth, the one who was always there, flattering her with his desire.

Possible spoilers after the jump…

Carolyn’s CBR4 Review #5: The Marriage Plot

Jeffery Eugenides wrote two of my favorite books. “The Virgin Diaries” was one of my favorite books in high school, a current-day Greek tragedy, complete with a Greek chorus in the boys that watched the Lisbon girls. “Middlesex” is probably one of the best books I ever read. So I suppose I should have guessed that Eugenides’s new book, “The Marriage Plot” would be a letdown. Lightening rarely strikes the same place three times.

“The Marriage Plot” is about three friends in the 1980s at Brown University: Madeline, a bookish, uncertain WASP who clings to her affection of Jane Austen and Henry James during academia’s infatuation with postmodernism; Leonard, her sometime boyfriend, brilliant, brooding, charismatic, poor and troubled; and Mitchell, a religious scholar who yearns in alternation for Madeleine and God. The novel opens the day the Maddy and Mitchell graduate from college (Leonard should have graduated, yet found himself locked up in the mental ward that day, following a nervous breakdown).

Eugenides switches the point of view between the three over the next few years. Leonard and Maddy get back together following his nervous breakdown and diagnosis as manic-depressive and they move to Cape Cod where he begins a prestigious scientific fellowship. In love with Leonard, Maddy is attentive, bored, nurturing and frustrated. She enjoys feeling needed, but she feels lonely in Cape Cod where all she does is take care of Leonard who has become fat and miserable. Mitchell sets off on a trip through Europe and India, still holding a torch for Madeline.  He travels through Paris and Greece before ending up in Calcutta volunteering for Mother Theresa.

The plot is a throwback to the lovers triangles in Austen, and the book tasks itself to determine if a viable “marriage plot” might be constructed around a feminist-era heroine for whom marriage no longer means an irrevocable surrender of person and property. One of Maddy’s literature professors asks his class, “What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?” But Eugegnides misses (at least what I think) what made those novels so loved-a likeable and well-developed heroine. We cheered for Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to the wealthy Mr. Darcy because we loved her. She was spunky and funny and intelligent and spoke her mind freely and eventually married a man who loved her for it and I don’t think we would have loved her happy ending any less if the option of divorce were available. Maddy is no Lizzy Bennet. She’s spoiled, ruthlessly uncomplicated, rather boring and spends most of the novel stagnated in her own indecision. It’s hard to see how two men could be so in love with her.

“The Marriage Plot” should have been a book I loved: from my love of the author, to my nerdy preoccupation with literature as well as the characters questions about what they should do with their lives, and how they struggle to find a job in the harsh 1980s economy (Hands up if anyone can relate to that) but ultimately I was never really interested in any of the characters. If you want to read Eugenides, I’d recommend going back to his other books.

Amurph11’s #CBRIV Review #2, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

So, here’s the thing about reviewing The Marriage Plot: it does not matter what I, or anyone else, says about it. If you are the type of person who would want to read The Marriage Plot you will read it, regardless of what I say. Likewise, if you are the type of person who is uninterested in The Marriage Plot, nothing I will say will induce you to pick it up. This is perhaps as it should be, because at it’s most basic The Marriage Plot is profoundly unrelatable to anyone but the narrow swath of humanity to which it speaks to: the bookish, Victorian lit major from a small liberal arts college; and the bookish, philosophically inclined social outcast whose romantic relationships are limited to the unrequited. Basically, the only people who are likely to read and enjoy this book are people who have either read and enjoyed Middlesex (who may be disappointed), or people who read the dust jacket and felt some sort of kinship with one of the above characters: Madeleine (the former), or Mitchell (the latter). I leave out the other main character Leonard because I don’t think he would deign to read a novel, immersed in Barthes as he is.

The Marriage Plot is a pretty straight forward love-triangle story. Madeleine is a blank canvas of a college girl who has colored in her lines with Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. Mitchell is a college boy who tends to tread just this side of social acceptability and whose main pursuits are reading and pining. And then there is Leonard, the profoundly unlikable jagged third point of this love triangle, a supposedly charismatic manic-depressive who sustains himself on Derrida and Fellini. Let me back up for a moment: I went to film school for a brief period of time (before I realized that it’s incredibly difficult to get a job in film industry with a film degree since everyone, even industry professionals, hates film students), so Leonard is my kryptonite. My version of a Nam flashback, if you will. He’s unbearable in his need to be intellectually superior. He has distinct tastes, but enjoys absolutely nothing. In defense of the author,  there is a reason for these character flaws: Leonard has a particularly profound case of manic-depression, a condition that is simply and eloquently explained (albeit with a standard Kierkegaard douche-reference) in this passage: “This is the deal with me: I’m ready to make the Kierkegaardian leap. My heart’s ready. My brain’s ready. But my legs won’t budge. I can say ‘Jump’ all day long. Nothing happens.” Nonetheless, the author’s attempts to make his charisma seem worth not only putting up with his condition but also his insufferable pretentions and occasional cruel indifference aren’t entirely successful. Part of this is because Eugenides treads too closely to the middle: in what was perhaps a desire to preserve the blank innocence of Madeleine, he doesn’t go far enough to characterize her relationship with Leonard as abusive (though it has some hallmarks), but neither does he romanticize it. Instead, he briefly immerses her in it and then whips her right back out as quickly as one might blanche vegetables, and though she goes through the motions of grief (or at least two of them – moving back in with her parents and crying often), one gets the feeling that she will emerge from what should have been a fairly traumatizing experience largely unscathed. And of course, Mitchell, the perpetually aggrieved always-a-friend-never-a-boyfriend , is waiting in the wings (briefly, the wings are located in Calcutta, a weirdly dissected section of the plot that seemed to belong in a different novel).

In fact, though for the most part I enjoyed reading the novel and it was certainly well-written, the only redeeming quality for me was in its ending (and here lie spoilers, so be forewarned). In the end, Madeleine chooses neither points of her love triangle in the end, defying the conventions of the novels she loves so much, and decides instead to try living life as a straight line. This would have been a much more affecting ending  if Madeleine hadn’t been such a non-entity of a character in the first place. Even her ultimate decision isn’t her own, but is instead projected onto her by Mitchell (who is also somewhat of a non-entity, characterized only by his longing, both romantic and religious). And it’s a shame, because hidden very, very deeply beneath the arduous plot is the hint of a good message: there’s a passage toward the end about the difficulty of finding solitude in love, and that seed, when taken to it’s logical outgrowth, proves what I think might be the point of the novel (though I had to reach for it): lasting relationships don’t tend to be all-consuming. What you really want out of a lifelong partner is someone who will let you alone once in awhile. Two halves don’t make a whole, but two wholes can make a reasonably functional relationship (if they’re not assholes). The trouble is, no one in this book is a whole yet (though 33.3% of them are arguably indeed assholes). Which is why the ending, despite the winding road it takes to get there, is ultimately satisfying: instead of dooming his characters to never-ending fictional matrimony, Eugenides allows them to skate away from him, not yet fully formed, to build themselves into real people away from his authoritative pen. Even though I didn’t like any of them very much, you get the feeling that he looked at his characters with the kind of cringing affection one has when they stumble upon their high school poetry. And it’s that outlook, coupled with the satisfyingly unsatisfying ending, that  makes it ultimately worth the read.

Post Navigation