Oct 3, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot follows three characters, all recent graduates from Brown University, from graduation day in 1982 until a little over a year later. Madeleine Hanna is an English major who wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot, beginning with Jane Austen and moving on to novels such as Middlemarch, which follow their heroines after the marriage ceremony takes place instead of ending at that point. Madeleine falls in love with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant biology and philosophy major she meets in her semiotics seminar. The third point of view character is Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major who spends his gap year travelling around Europe and India and obsessing about Madeleine, whom he irrationally believes he is destined to marry.

There are emotional ties between these three characters, but I would perhaps hesitate to call this a love triangle due to my dislike of much of what the term evokes. The Marriage Plot very deliberately alludes to stories in which the onus is on the heroine to decide between two suitors, but it lacks – or rather, turns around – most of the things that put me off about love triangles. In 1980’s America, among the educated elite, the social context is of course very different than in a Victorian novel. Madeleine is not exactly torn between Leonard and Mitchell; she mostly makes romantic choices that are determined by timing and circumstances and that exist side by side with other major decisions in her life. Her hyperawareness is another difference: how many other heroines would spend three weeks of broken-heartedness reading Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse so obsessively that her roommates feel compelled to confiscate it?

Having said this, The Marriage Plot is unapologetically concerned with romantic relationships. This book was a delight to read for many reasons, and one of them was that it directly engages with certain points I have been considering about how love stories are framed and conceived of in a feminist context. Being aware of the problems with narratives that present romantic decisions as the only relevant decisions in a woman’s life does not mean we now have to despise female characters that devote a lot of their time and energy to the matter of love. Madeleine is smart, capable, intellectually curious, multifaceted – and yes, very much in love.

Eugenides’ novel, then, deals with romantic relationships and the role they play in people’s lives, with the cultural resonance of our preoccupation with love, and with how we feel about the way we prioritise it (or not). Madeleine’s favourite novels normalise the impulse to prioritise it, the theory she studies makes her question it, and for part of the novel she feels stuck in between these two frameworks. There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with tipping the balance in either direction, but Madeleine realises that the personal decisions she makes can be politically or theoretically charged - and yet this doesn
t mean that these beliefs have to hold her life hostage. Throughout the novel she deals with going against the grain of what’s expected of her and finding ways of juggling different interests while still maintaining personal coherence.

I’m mostly focusing on Madeleine, who was my favourite character, but this is not to say that Leonard and Mitchell’s stories weren’t equally interesting. Mitchell’s section contains one of the best portrayals of the thought process of a young man who is called out for sexist behaviour that I have ever encountered. And Leonard’s narrative seemed to me a compassionate and non-sensationalised description of what living with mental illness feels like. Leonard’s bipolar disorder, for which he has to take lithium, puts him in a position of dependency that complicates his relationship with Madeleine. There are hints of Salinger (as well as many allusions to his work, because this is the kind of novel this is) in how Eugenides describes his character’s struggles and vulnerabilities, and the result is often quite moving.

What I loved the most about The Marriage Plot’s myriad literary and theoretical allusions was the fact that they were not there merely for their own sake, or to allow the author to show us how knowledgeable he is: the novels Madeleine reads tell us something about what her story is going to be about; the character’s intellectual interests reveal who they are and inform their life decision. The Marriage Plot examines the intersection between literature, theory and life: what do all these abstractions mean to people on a personal level?

In this way, The Marriage Plot challenges the idea that a novel of ideas – deconstructionism, semiotics, religion, philosophy, feminism, Victorianism, you name it – a love story, and a good old-fashioned coming-of-age/intellectual growth narrative need to be at odds with each other. Which brings me to the wonderful and gloriously metafictional ending: The Marriage Plot’s conclusion draws attention to the fact that a love story’s beginning or ending does not need to prove a point. Madeleine is not weakened by her romantic choices; she does not need to leave them behind to become a liberated, complete human being. And yet she does what feels right for her at that particular moment in time, as many of us have and will. Her ultimate choice is validated in a way that doesn
t demean any of the alternatives - and I say, three cheers for that.

The Marriage Plot is humane, subtly humorous, sometimes touching, and always extremely engaging. As Raych so brilliantly put it, Eugenides somehow manages to take “things that are MAD TEDIOUS, like people’s scholarly inclinations and the way they intersect with and inform said people’s life-paths and [make] them fascinating”. This may not be an instant addition to my list of all-time favourites in the same way his two previous novels were, but it’s a hugely enjoyable and satisfying story.

Favourite passages:
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.

It wasn’t only that this writing seemed beautiful to Madeleine. It wasn’t only that these opening sentences of Barthes’ made immediate sense. It wasn’t only the relief of recognising that here, finally, was a book she might write her final paper on. What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.

The thing about the Victorians, Madeleine was learning, was that they were a lot less Victorian than you thought. Frances Power Cobbe had lived openly with another woman, referring to her as her “wife”. In 1868, Cobbe had published an article in Fraser’s Magazine entitled “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors. Is this Classification Sound?” Women were restricted from owning and inheriting property in early Victorian Britain. They were restricted from participating in politics. And it was under these conditions, while they were classified literally among idiots, that Madeleine’s favourite women writers had written their books.
They read it too: books i done read, Literary Musings

(You?)

26 comments:

  1. This sounds like a wonderful book. I really would not have thought that at all, just based on the title. But I think I have to read it now if for no other reason than the wonderful line: "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights."

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  2. I'm really excited about this one as I loved Middlesex. I haven't read The Virgin Suicides yet (although I've seen the film which I thought was beautiful), so maybe after I read that I'll give this one a go. Anything with literary allusions will get me running to a bookshop! And I'm happy you enjoyed!

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  3. This sounds fascinating! Thank you for the wonderful review, Nymeth. Definitely one I'll be looking out for.

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  4. Hi Ana :)

    Thank-you for the review, I can't wait to read this book, I do not believe it is yet available in the US...I have read all of Eugenides's novels, they are a delight.

    Have a wonderful week Ana

    Sylvie

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  5. "Hugely enjoying and satisfying" from you and Raych is really all one needs to know. I want to get this one on audio.

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  6. I have to admit the title made me feel like falling asleep but your review has me really interested. It's this month's indiespensable pick, so I know I'll be receiving it now to make sure I read it!

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  7. I do want to read this, but supposed I should read the copy of Middlesex that's on my shelf first!

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  8. I really enjoyed Middlesex, and have been very curious and anxious about this book since first hearing about it. I am glad you liked it because that bodes well for me. I can't wait to try this one out for myself! Great review, Ana!

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  9. I've only read one Eugenides, but I absolutely loved it. This one sounds like a great read.

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  10. I didn't know Jeffrey Eugenides had written a new novel, although I enjoyed his other books - thanks for the review. You make it sound really interesting and I will definitely try to read this one as soon as I can!

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  11. Fantastic review. I think you were right on point when you mentioned the novel challenges specific genres of novels and shows us there can be overlap without feeling cluttered.

    I also agree about the ending - simply superb.

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  12. Wow, I'm wondering if I'm smart enough for this book.

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  13. Good :D I'm glad I preordered this one now!! I am so loving Middlesex right now…can't wait to read more of his stuff!

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  14. Oh, you've made this sound absolutely irresistible. Thanks for adding another one to my TBR list! :)

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  15. Huh. I was very much drawn in by both your comments and the passages you posted, in particular your points about the perhaps overthought difficulty reconciling romantic plot-lines and feminism...and yet I strongly, STRONGLY disliked both of Eugenides's other novels. Dare I try him again? Food for thought. Maybe in a low-commitment setting like checking this out from the library.

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  16. Jill: Isn't that a great passage?

    Sakura: The film is one of my favourite adaptations ever!

    litlove: I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Sylvie: It's out on the 11th, so not much longer now! And thank you - I hope you have a great week yourself :)

    Sandy: Happy listening! I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

    Amy: I can't wait to hear what you think! Will it be your first Eugenides?

    JoAnn: Yes! As much as I enjoyed this I can't really compare it to Middlesex.

    Zibilee: I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did :)

    Trisha: There's so much here I think you'll love!

    Sarah: Happy reading!

    Brenna: I couldn't stop smiling after reading the ending.

    Lola: Enjoy!

    Kathy: Of course you are! I know I made it sound very strictly academic, but it's also a hugely readable and very human story.

    Chris: So glad you're loving it :)

    Buried in Print: You're welcome - it's what blogs are for :P

    Emily: You may very well feel the same way about this one, but then again it's different enough that it's possible that you won't. Not a very helpful comment, I know :P Worth checking from the library, I guess!

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  17. Awesome review, Ana! From your description of the ending, it seems to be perfect - Eugenides seems to have achieved the perfect balance, which is so difficult to do in books as well as in real life. I can't believe that I haven't read a Eugenides book till now, because he seems to be a writer who seems to be so well read, intelligent and is able to combine intellectual concepts in his books which bring a lot of delight and 'Aha' moments to the reader. Your comments - "In 1980’s America, among the educated elite, the social context is of course very different than in a Victorian novel. Madeleine is not exactly torn between Leonard and Mitchell; she mostly makes romantic choices that are determined by timing and circumstances and that exist side by side with other major decisions in her life." - and - "Madeleine’s favourite novels normalise the impulse to prioritise it, the theory she studies makes her question it, and for part of the novel she feels stuck in between these two frameworks." - made me smile :) They also made me think. They made me think on how most of the time these days, we believe in love and passion but this is more based on what we think and what we feel, based on our ideas, while we also realize that the real-world is not perfect and so we keep our defences strong, our boundaries guarded, our negotiating cards ready, and love and romantic relationships are one more everyday thing that we do, rather than being the real world manifestation of what we feel. That line where you say that Madeleine feels stuck between two frameworks really resonated with me.

    Thanks for this wonderful review, Ana :) I can't tell you how awesome it is. I will add this book to my 'TBR' list.

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  18. The book sounds just as wonderful as you promised me on Twitter, but I'm particularly taken with this:

    Being aware of the problems with narratives that present romantic decisions as the only relevant decisions in a woman’s life does not mean we now have to despise female characters that devote a lot of their time and energy to the matter of love. Madeleine is smart, capable, intellectually curious, multifaceted – and yes, very much in love.

    This puts me in mind of Jenny's recent post about the Bechdel Test. Failing the Bechdel Test does not mean a certain story hates women, just as a often problematic narrative can be explored in ways that expose those problematic elements and holds them up to scrutiny. Very nice, Ana, very nice.

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  19. You read this book BEFORE me! I am such a slacker...

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  20. A friend of mine got an advanced review copy of this one and absolutely loved it, so I'm definitely intrigued! I love books that focus on romance and books that focus on scholarly pursuits, so one that ties the two together? I am so there!

    I've read Eugenides's other two novels and enjoyed both of them (though I think Virgin Suicides is vastly superior to Middlesex), so I really want to try this one soon! Hope I can find a copy! :D

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  21. I've pre-ordered this one for my Kindle and CANNOT wait. Glad to hear you loved it so much!

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  22. Mm, I think I'm going to enjoy this one. I'm half way through Middlesex right now and am thoroughly impressed. I can't wait to get to this one! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  23. Hi Ana :)
    I have been waiting for this novel, love Jeffrey Eugenides. I bought "THE MARRIAGE PLOT" yesterday and await impatiently to read it. I am finishing another good read "THE NIGHT CIRCUS"

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  24. Hi Ana :)
    I have been waiting for this novel, love Jeffrey Eugenides. I bought "THE MARRIAGE PLOT" yesterday and await impatiently to read it. I am finishing another good read "THE NIGHT CIRCUS"

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  25. I enjoyed this review even more the second time around, having read the book. You organise your thoughts so beautifully, Nymeth, and make so many excellent points. I really wanted to come back and reread your interpretation, because I remembered it as inspired. I wasn't wrong!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.