The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides
It was about eight months ago when I finished reading Richard Russo's "Bridge of Sighs" which was the first novel Russo published after winning the Pulitzer. Overall I found it to be extremely dull. Part of what I theorized was that Russo had tried way too hard to prove himself after winning the highest award of American literature.
I mention that because this is Eugenides's first novel after winning the Pulitzer for "Middlesex" and it suffers from the same problems, although it mercifully isn't as long. Overall Eugenides's attempts to create something profound and deep winds up being a dull slog, not anywhere near as good as his two previous novels.
First off, I think his entire concept that the "marriage plot" doesn't exist anymore is flawed. There are plenty of books that still deal with marriage. (Even I've written one!) Maybe there aren't as many waltzes and as much worrying about manners, but marriage still remains a key part of many literary novels. More than a few of those are updates of Jane Austen or other Victorian stories too. Really Jane Austen has been updated every which way by now from sequels to being told from different narrators to being set in modern day to adding zombies and sea monsters. So there's nothing groundbreaking about this story.
This story takes place in the 1980s probably for the reason that it was easier for the author to write about twentysomethings during the period when he was twentysomething as opposed to trying to write about the 2010s. Mentioning the recession of the early 80s is of course supposed to make us think of the parallels to now.
It all starts at Brown University in Rhode Island. Spoiled little rich girl Madeline is pursuing a useless degree in English, focusing on Victorian literature. You can afford to waste your life like that when Mommy and Daddy (which she still calls them despite being 22) are paying all the bills. Madeline is finally graduating. It takes Eugenides a good track of the audiobook to finally inform us that the doorbell is ringing and her parents are visiting to watch her graduate.
Weeks earlier she broke up with Leonard, a quirky poor boy from Oregon. But on the way to graduating, she finds out Leonard is in the hospital after a nervous breakdown. She finds out that he's suffering from manic depression. Madeline is the type suffering from Florence Nightingale syndrome and soon becomes essentially Leonard's nurse.
At the same time, in a largely pointless subplot, Madeline's sometimes friend Mitchell is doing like so many kids his age and going backpacking through Europe with his friend Larry. Along the way Mitchell obsesses about Madeline. Why? Because the plot calls for it. I can't see much about her that's worth obsessing about. He also becomes Born Again and says "the Jesus Prayer" about 700 times, which is really annoying in an audiobook because I wondered if the CD was skipping. He finally goes to help Mother Teresa in India.
Eventually, thanks to unwisely cutting back on his meds, Leonard convinces Madeline to marry him. Needless to say this doesn't work out so well.
To put it mildly, this book was drudgery. None of the characters are very likable. Madeline is a whiny bore. Leonard is often a bully. Mitchell is a creep who should be watching Madeline with high-powered binoculars. There's no reason I'd ever want to read about any of these people. Nor do I care who marries who or doesn't marry who. They could all fall off a cliff for all I care.
The writing is mostly fine, though there was one laughable section where Mitchell stares at a French girl's butt and thinks that it's alive and looking at him. That only made me think of Jim Carrey in "Ace Ventura" talking out his butt, which I do all the time.
What I hate most of all though is that it uses that structure where it starts in the present and then we have to go back through what's happened before that. Often we have to hear what happens from Madeline's point of view and then Leonard's or Mitchell's. There's often gratuitous exposition, most of it not mattering at all. There's so much discussion of philosophy, literature, and religion classes that the reader should get course credit at Brown for reading it.
Really there are so many better books you could read. For twentysomethings in the '80s read "Less Than Zero" or "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." For a novel about a woman torn between a man with a debilitating condition and another guy, read "The Dive From Clausen's Pier." Or you could read Jane Austen.
That is all.