THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides

Book Quote:

“In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novels of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely…Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (NOV 16, 2011)

“Reader, I married him.”

What sensitive reader hasn’t thrilled to the last lines of the novel Jane Eyre, when the mousy and unprepossessing girl triumphantly returns to windswept Thornfield as a mature woman, marrying her one-time employer and great love, Mr. Rochester?

That era of these great wrenching love stories is now dead and gone. Or is it? Can these time-honored stories be rewritten for our current age, adapting to the accepted forces of sexual freedom and feminism? That’s the main focus of Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel and the theme shows up early on. He writes about his key character: “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.”

You’d expect the author of the ground-breaking Virgin Suicides – a beautifully-rendered mythology about the suicides of five secluded sisters as seen through the eyes of neighborhood boys – and Middlesex, the exhilarating Pulitzer Prize winning multi-generational saga focusing on a hermaphrodite – to bring a fresh energy to the topic. And indeed, Mr. Eugenides does.

The” marriage plot” is a term used to categorize a storyline centered on the courtship rituals between a man and a woman and the potential obstacles they face on the way to the nuptial bed. It often involves a triangle – typically, the woman and man who are fated to be together and a strong rival for the woman’s attention.

So it is here. Madeline Hanna – the center of this new marriage plot — is a privileged Brown University student, a young English major whose books range from the complete Modern Library set of Henry James to “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters.” Her brain is tantalized by her readings of deconstructions like Roland Barthes in her Semiotics 211; her heart, though, is firmly tethered to the literature of a century or two past. The other two sides of the love triangle are composed of Leonard Bankhead, a charismatic, sexually charged, intellectual, and intense college Darwinist, and Mitchell Grammaticus, the spiritually inclined seeker who has been delving into various religious mythologies including Christian mysticism.

But – Eugenides being Eugenides – someone who does not shy from complex characters – he adds a twist. Leonard is not only tall, dark and brooding (he wears a leather jacket, chews tobacco and is uncontrollably moody. Think: David Wallace Foster), he is also bipolar. What follows is one of the most breathtaking descriptions of this mental condition that this reader has ever read:

“As Leonard strode along, thoughts stacked up in his head like air traffic over Logan Airport to the northwest. There were one or two jumbo jets full of Big Ideas, a fleet of 707s laden with the cargo of sensual impressions (the color of the sky, the smell of the sea), as well as Learjets carrying rich solitary impulses that wished to travel incognito. All these planes requested permission to land simultaneously. Leonard radioed the aircraft, telling some to keep circling while ordering others to divert to another location entirely. The stream of traffic was never-ending…”

How do you carry on a relationship with someone who is hostage to his emotions and at the mercy of Lithium, which leaves him dulled and somnambulant, plump and often impotent…yet often magnetic? Indeed, there are times the reader will question exactly what the attraction is and why Madeleine succumbs to it. But wait – in the wings is the man who still carries the torch and who is currently overseas working out the big questions: the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

There are those who will consider the plot to be vaguely misogynistic. After all, Madeleine is the “prize” between two very determined men; she is hardly “I am woman, hear me roar.” Rather, “it turned out that Madeleine had a madwoman in the attic: it was her six-foot-three boyfriend.” Mr. Eugenides is not trying to make politically-correct statements; rather, he is working within the confines of the traditional marriage plot, with wisps and tendrils of everything from Jane Eyre to Anna Karenina. And he does so smartly. He deconstructs not only the deconstruction of the marriage plot, but answers the question about why we still rejoice in this timeworn style. And he does it with page-turning fervor to show how reading about love affects the ways we fall in love.

With devastating wit and a nod to intellectual and academic influences, Jeffrey Eugenides creates a fresh new way to approach the predictable marriage plot, revealing its relevance in today’s world. It is an achievement.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 392 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 11, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jeffrey Eugenides
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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November 16, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary, NE & New York, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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