book review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The basics: The Marriage Plot is the story of a love triangle of sorts. Madeleine Hanna is an English major at Brown in 1982. She falls hard for Leonard Bankhead, while Mitchell Grammaticus falls hard for her. Madeleine's senior thesis addresses the marriage plot in classic literature and ponders if it's still relevant today: "in the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely."

My thoughts: This novel has three of my favorite attributes: an academic setting, travel, and it's character driven. I have a soft spot for novels set in academia, and The Marriage Plot utterly immerses itself in it:
"College wasn't like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity."
I found the lengthy descriptions of college course content in English, philosophy and religion fascinating, but they may not appeal to all readers. Given the large number of relatively obscure texts mentioned, I was amazed how well Eugenides integrated them into the story in ways that would not alienate a reader unfamiliar with some of them nor bore a reader who knew them well. As a reader who fell into both categories at different times, I still feel I got the same experience, which is truly impressive.

It's no secret I love to travel and often enjoy fiction that takes me on a traveling journey. As with the literature and theory in the first part of the novel, Mitchell's post-college travels took him to places I've visited and places I haven't, and yet I enjoyed them equally. It was a fascinating journey to be a part of.

Although I certainly enjoy plot, character-driven novels remain my favorite. While Madeleine is ostensibly the main character, so much of her story was tied up with the stories of Leonard and Mitchell. It was mostly successful, but the one quibble I had with the novel was the redundancy of his depression. Initially, the insight into depression and mental illness was all-encompassing and illuminating. As time went on, however, I began to grow tired of its focus. Of course, this device mimics the story itself, which I presume was intentional, but it began to hinder my enjoyment, albeit not my appreciation, of this novel. When Madeleine was able to take center stage, however, I most enjoyed the novel. Her thoughts and perspective were delightful and moving:
"You were supposed to feel bad about missing the sixties, but Madeleine didn't. She felt as if she'd been spared a lot of nonsense, that her generation, while inheriting much that was good from that decade, had a healthy distance from it as well, saving them from the whiplash that resulted from being a Maoist one minute and a suburban mother, in Beverly, Massachusetts, the next."
I especially loved the irony of this statement in a character-driven novel: "'Please,' Rudiger said dismissively. 'Let's not try to understand each other by autobiography.'"

While I do believe The Marriage Plot is one of the best novels of the year, it fell a bit short of becoming one of my favorite novels of the year. Eugenide's brilliance as a writer and auteur is utterly apparent. Yet Leonard's domination of the novel reduced by enjoyment. If Madeleine were able to shine more, the novel would have been more enjoyable, although not more brilliant.

Favorite passage: "Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn't get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it. When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity."

The verdict: In many ways, I think of The Marriage Plot as I do Freedom (my review). It's brilliant in conception, scope and theme. My enjoyment as a reader comes as much from enjoying the mechanics of the novel as it does the character. It isn't a novel that swept me away with its characters and events, but it is a novel I will continue to respect, analyze and ponder for the years to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 418 pages
Publication date: October 11, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

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  1. I've been dying for your review of this -- and you didn't disappoint. I'm eager to read this but prepared to not be wholly swept up and I think this is just the frame-of-mind I need (I often let a novel's hype get to me, and then too often I just don't dig the book).

  2. I like what you said there at the end, about being able to respect and ponder it, but that it didn't sweep you off your feet. I don't need to be swept off my feet, but I need to feel as if the writing is worthy of a read and I sort of expect that from Eugenides so I am glad that you included that last statement.

  3. I have really been wanting to read this book, and a lot of the elements that you found to be a little harder really interest me personally, so I think I would have a very good reaction to this one. I knew it probably wouldn't be as great as Middlesex, but it sounds like it was a great read nevertheless. I am looking forward to reading this book now more than ever. Fantastic review, by the way!

  4. I am so frickin excited to read this one!

  5. I love that quote about college. That was my thought that the author included the redundancy about depression to create that mood but I could definitely see where that would be frustrating. Even though it wasn't your favorite, it does sound like it was well done and still a great read.

  6. Hmm, you certainly have me intrigued about this one! It sounds like it might be a good one for me to suggest to my bookclub. Like it might be one I want to talk to with others about.

  7. I skimmed this as I just really started this one, but happy to see that you enjoyed it.

    Seems quite different from Middlesex, but still very good.

  8. I was nervous about reading this, because I loved Middlesex so, so much. But I ended up liking it. Yay! Not quite as much as Middlesex, but still more than I had even hoped for. And yeah, it's all because of the characters. (Okay, and the travel.)


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