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The Marriage Plot

June 12, 2013

Driving around doing my errands, I’ve been listening to the audio version of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot, mostly because ReadersGuide, who went to Brown University, as the protagonists of the novel do, said she found it interesting.

I did get interested in the part about how the main character, Madeleine, is faced with learning new ways of reading and has to re-evaluate her approach to her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot (a close reading of the “marriage plot” in their novels) because it recapitulates my own experience as an undergraduate, the bottom of the safe little box of what I’d learned to do dropping out in a disconcerting (but exciting!) way, revealing the promise of Deconstructionism and Feminism and Historicism and Semiotics.

What kept me listening to this novel were the good lines. When Madeleine goes to a party and meets a weirdo from her semiotics class, he tells her “parties bring my misanthropy into focus.” When Madeleine is falling in love with Leonard, they have a conversation about how his “goal in life is to become an adjective” like Felliniesque, Joycean, Shakespearean, Kafkaesque, or Tolstoyan.

But I found the part about Madeleine’s friend Mitchell sordid and uncomfortable and pointless, especially when he drifts around Europe feeling mystical and believing in destiny. The girlfriend of the pal he starts out traveling with has some good lines, but they’re not funny enough in light of how true Mitchell admits they are. Here’s a fairly typical Mitchell reverie:
“All the while she’d been accusing Mitchell of objectifying women, he’d been secretly objectifying her. She had such an incredible ass! It was so round and perfect and alive. Every time Mitchell stole a glance at her ass he had the weird feeling that it was staring back, that Claire’s ass didn’t necessarily agree with its owner’s feminist politics but was perfectly happy to be admired…”
The longer the book goes on, the more I dislike Mitchell.

The secret about Leonard, the Brown graduate who Madeleine marries, turns out to be something that had to be more hidden and was less well-treated in the past, so not a very interesting secret. Madeleine’s sister discovers he is taking lithium and puts her whole family into a flutter. Leonard is brilliant, but self-indulgent and self-destructive. If I didn’t dislike Mitchell so much, I’d have some energy left over to use on disliking Leonard.

The one thing I do like about Mitchell as a character is that in the end, when he finally figures out how to get a positive response from Madeleine, who he has romanticized all these years, he phrases what he has to say as “a literary question.” These are characters who fall in love with other people because of the life of the mind, and Eugenides shows that well.

The life of the spirit, Mitchell’s magical mystical tour, is evidently much harder to capture, especially when it’s continually tangled up with Mitchell’s sexual longings, culminating with:
“as he removed Madeleine’s clothing, layer by layer, he was confronted by the physical reality of things he had long imagined. An uncomfortable tension existed between the two, with the result that after a while neither felt entirely real. Was this really Madeleine’s breast he was taking into his mouth, or was it something he had dreamed, or was he dreaming now. Why, if she was finally there before him in the flesh, did she seem to be so odorless and vaguely alien? He did his best: he persevered.”
The sordidness of Mitchell’s view of sex is continually the part of the novel that gives me the creeps. Yes, if the choice is between Mitchell and Leonard, then the ending of this novel without the heroine about to marry either of the heroes is absolutely right.

If anyone should read this as a novel representing the experience of college graduates my age, I would be utterly appalled; I think that, at the very least, we had more literary choices than (logical fallacy) only two: Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Eliot, and Bronte on the one hand, and Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Eco, and Cixous on the other.

This is the second novel by this author that I’ve read (the first was Middlesex) and something about his writing reminds me of reading in bed at dusk while lying on sheets that need to be changed; there’s something grimy, gray, and ennui-inducing about the entire experience.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2013 11:23 am

    I just read that too – I really didn’t like any of the people, but I kept reading because it’s well done and full of good lines (and cringe inducing bits) and yes, the ending works just right.

    I seem to have read Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, and I can’t remember a damned thing about either of them.

    • June 14, 2013 9:54 am

      An ending that works just right, especially one that works with the title, goes a long way towards making me like a book. Not far enough, in this case, but enough to not make me regret all the time I spent listening to it.

  2. June 12, 2013 11:31 am

    There’s something about Eugenides’ writing that is so fascinating. I remember reading this one on vacation a couple years ago and while the characters were unlikeable, there’s was something interesting about their struggle.

    • June 14, 2013 9:54 am

      I took their struggle personally–too personally, maybe–since I am of their generation.

  3. June 12, 2013 3:02 pm

    I loved the writing in this book, all of the wonderful lines you mentioned. I also liked the fact that it was sort of grimy, even though it’s not the most enjoyable thing sometimes.

    • June 14, 2013 9:55 am

      Maybe I would have liked it better if I’d read it faster, rather than listening to it. Or if I’d come upon it at a different time of year, or of life.

  4. June 12, 2013 7:01 pm

    Ha. That’s quite a description of Eugenides’s novels. I felt exactly that way about The Virgin Suicides all the way through.

    • June 14, 2013 9:57 am

      Right? (extends a reader’s handshake towards Jenny)

  5. June 12, 2013 7:35 pm

    I actually really liked this novel, largely because Madeleine and Mitchell reminded me so strongly of people I’ve known and of myself, in varying ways. The characters felt utterly real to me, even in the sordidness of their stories. That didn’t make them likable necessarily, but I found it hard to dislike them.

    Middlesex, on the other hand, I did not like much. Your description sounds about right when applied to Middlesex. In that case, I also felt he was trying too hard to be edgy and ended up with something that felt false.

    • June 14, 2013 9:58 am

      Your comment makes me feel very much like Blanche Dubois: “I don’t want realism; I want magic!”

  6. freshhell permalink
    June 12, 2013 8:14 pm

    I have been meaning to read this. Perhaps I can find it as an audiobook. That would be fun to listen to on my commute. I’ve read Middlesex but not Virgin Suicides. I doubt very much this version of college life mirrors my own so perhaps that remove will make it more palatable? Or maybe not. We shall see.

    • June 14, 2013 9:59 am

      I can’t see you having as much patience with Mitchell as I did, but let me know!

  7. June 12, 2013 8:53 pm

    I find Eugenides incredibly compelling. I read voraciously and then promptly forget everything. Of the three books of his I’ve read (Middlesex, Virgin Suicides and this), this was my least favorite, but also the one I remember best, I think because, although I’m a little younger than the cohort he describes, it’s close enough to be very familiar. This is, I think, the only review of this book I’ve read that doesn’t mention the Leonard was based (or supposedly based) on David Foster Wallace. I didn’t know that when I read the book, and I was glad not too, because I got to find the similarities on my own and draw my own conclusions. I love your description in the last paragraph. There is something about Eugenides that seems bad for you. And I find the way he writes female characters a bit creepy.

    • June 14, 2013 10:01 am

      Yes, his female characters are creepy; Madeleine assesses college boys in terms of whether they’re up to her “standards” for dating.
      I find it creepy to know that Leonard is based on what anyone could claim to know about DFW. That comes closest to making me sorry I listened to the whole thing.

  8. June 13, 2013 9:38 am

    I think I have this book somewhere (glances over at bookshelves, then squinting…) I really like Middlesex and have wanted to read the Virgin Suicides since seeing the flick (oh Josh Hartnett! – a kid that I did not think was interesting or good looking until his fantastic performance in this movie.)
    Your last paragraph makes me laugh.

    • June 14, 2013 10:04 am

      Hmm, maybe I should see the movie, rather than ever start reading The Virgin Suicides! Less time spent! Gist of the story in head!

  9. June 13, 2013 1:19 pm

    Here’s a link to my review, which is not so much a review as my reading notes –
    It was definitely the Eugenides book I’ve liked best — VS seemed pointless and I never made it through Middlesex. I should look at MP again and see if I think Madeline seems a little thin. I think if anyone seemed thin to me it was Leonard. Mitchell makes sense to me — he’s the middle class kid from the public school who has come to this Ivy League school not because it’s expected but because he’s a serious student.

    • June 14, 2013 10:06 am

      I think that’s the hard kernel of what I didn’t like about Mitchell–that he’s the one example of a serious student who isn’t crazy or east coast society rich. It gives me a tiny taste of what it’s like to be the one African-American student in a class and be the one everybody looks at when reading something about an African-American character. There’s no way any one person should be expected to speak for that.

      • June 17, 2013 2:12 pm

        Not sure madeline was rich — was she? but she was a certain type.

        • June 17, 2013 3:18 pm

          Her parents bought her a car after putting her through Brown! And then, after paying for her wedding, they sent her and Leonard to Europe for a honeymoon. That’s rich.

          • June 17, 2013 4:42 pm

            Ah — I sort of remembered her parents situation as slightly precarious, but then again, I read the book a while ago. There’s also the NY apartment, which I can no longer remember the details of.

  10. June 13, 2013 1:44 pm

    I’m actually intrigued by the negative points you’ve made, because the positive and the book overall sounds interesting enough that I want to see where the rest fits in. It sounds an interesting commentary, too, even if not to be taken as anywhere near reality. And well, the literary references, how can you not want to read a book about books?

    • June 14, 2013 10:07 am

      It is, to some extent, a book about falling in love with books. And about what kind of commitment a person is willing to make to books.

  11. June 14, 2013 3:50 pm

    If you like magic in your reading, I can quite see why this doesn’t work. The way I read it was to see it as a novel of two parts – the first part in the university, where they glean theories and foster ideals about how they will live life, and then in the second part they fun headfirst into that life and find it far more recalcitrant and awful, and their characters more flawed and weak than they’d ever imagined. For me it was a book about the shock of real life beyond the protective walls of an extended childhood. And that’s pretty anti-magical!

    • June 15, 2013 8:23 am

      If it had worked better for me as a novel of two parts, I could have liked that kind of realism. Madeleine and Leonard lived their married life in her childhood home, with her Madeline wallpaper, so I didn’t see them going beyond the protective walls of an extended childhood. Mitchell didn’t write or call his mother enough. All the mothers were fairly clueless; it wasn’t like they were showing that life is different in practice than it is in theory, when you’re in college.
      That structure is probably a part of how the novel should work, though, and it’s interesting I missed it from listening. Thanks for pointing it out!

  12. June 17, 2013 6:33 pm

    It is a book about books, and a book about how bookish people grow up and the conflict of their bookish ideas of the world with the world as it actually is (in a book, of course.) It’s a wonderful book, even if Jeanne doesn’t like it. Just look at how much discussion it’s provoked!

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