Monday, September 24, 2012
Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
"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 dmidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoutable Brontë 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 had 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 that 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."
I already identified with Madeleine from the first lines. Add some Hardy, Tolstoy, Byron, Rimbaud, Keats, de Nerval and Baudelaire in there and it could have been me. Sitting in a room surrounded by novels that depict love lost and found, heartbreak and happiness within pages and pages of beautiful words has always been my safe place - as it seems to be Madeleine's. Although I feel I am still more pulled towards the darker side, more Hardy and Tess than Austen and Emma. But anyway, am going to try to not to get sidetracked and talk about myself as usual, as I doubt Eugenides wrote this novel with me in mind...
Madeleine is writing her thesis on the marriage plot in 19th century Victorian literature (think Jane Austen's work as a prime example), and how with the changes in society (divorce etc) and marriage not being as important as it once was, the novel itself seems to have slightly lost the plot (so to say). By depicting Madeleine's real life love triangle with her manic-depressive boyfriend Leonard and her friend who happens to be madly in love with her, Mitchell Grammaticus, Eugenides reinvents the marriage plot in it's modern form and gives us a good dose of the modern mixed with the classic, with twists and turns that you cannot even expect to expect, right down to the last page.
Leonard is the one character I so wanted to despise, but just couldn't. Eugenides has a very clear view of what manic-depression does to people, and the picture he portrays of Leonard is one that way too many of us go through every day. (FYI the novel is set in the early 80's, so all of the older terms of this illness and medication are used in the novel). Some times you just want to shake Leonard and tell him to snap out of it, other times you just want him to do the right thing and disappear, leaving Madeleine to live a happier life with someone like Mitchell. Mitchell, on the other hand, is just as lost as the other two, travelling around Europe and India, searching for his spiritual self while pining after Madeleine at every waking moment. Every time you feel like you finally know one of the characters they turn round and show you another side of themselves, just like people in real life. Nothing is ever exactly how it seems and failure to communicate correctly can lead to disastrous as well as spectacular experiences. However many times you think that you know the outcome, it most often doesn't fall quite into place the way you would like it to - which is not always a bad thing. And then sometimes, once in a while, it all just works out perfectly, even if this wasn't what you thought you wanted.
I don't want to talk more about the plot of the novel, as I think everyone will have their own feelings about this, but not only is this a wonderful story, beautifully written, it's also a great psychological insight and social study on how we all react and communicate (or not) with each other on a daily basis. You can protect yourself from everything to avoid pain, but in the end there will always be some cracks in the armour. A serious must-read in my books.