Monday, April 21, 2014

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Isn’t it odd how the universe works?  Here I am, struggling to find my place in this world and understand what’s going on with my emotions, and I pick up my latest read, The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which addresses just such issues.  I had no real clue what to expect when I picked up this book, other than a great read, because Eugenides had never disappointed me with his books (see here and here).

The Marriage Plot is a modern-day nod to the Regency and Victorian authors who wrote about life, love and marriage.  The story revolves around three people; Madeleine, who is from an affluent family and graduating from Brown University with a degree in English, Leonard, a brilliant biology student from the wrong side of the tracks and who is Madeleine’s boyfriend, and Mitchell, a religions-major who is in love with Madeleine.  On the day of Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell’s graduation, Madeleine learns that Leonard has been committed to a psychiatric ward for depression/a break down.  Even though they had broken up earlier in the semester, Madeleine leaves her own commencement ceremony to rush to Leonard’s side, there by setting up a pattern for their relationship.  Meanwhile, in order to escape his unrequited love for Madeleine, Mitchell is planning a back-packing trip to Europe and Indian for post-graduation.  The truth in this story is the quest that Madeleine and Mitchell are on to find themselves; both are in love with people that can’t, for different reasons, return their love.  So, when you’re young, educated, and have the world in front of you, how do you deal with that?  How do you find a place in the world that you can be comfortable in knowing that the one you love isn’t in love with you?  What plans can you make, and how can you adjust when those plans have to change?  Eugenides explores all these issues (and I’m sure more that I just couldn’t pick up in my condition), with aplomb and honesty that characterizes his work.

In The Marriage Plot, the narrative shifts mainly between Madeleine and Mitchell, and once to Leonard.  In this case, I wasn’t such a fan of the device; I found Madeleine to be a bit vapid and wasting her potential, and Mitchell the much more interesting of the two – I would have appreciated more of him and less of her.  But I guess that’s a sign of a good author with engaging characters; I have a strong feeling about spending time with the author’s creations, and that’s indicative of engagement.   

I think what really drove me nuts about the situation was that Madeleine wasn’t living up to her full potential and was selling herself short.  We all know people like this (and if you don’t, you’re the one in your social group that your friends think of as ‘that person’), and I’m at a point in my life – removed from the post-graduation glow/freak-out – where I don’t have the patience for these people.  But, again, I think that’s a sign of Eugenides’s skill, that he has me so engaged in his characters that I’m rooting for them, and want to sit down and give them life-advice.  

In a book like this, the characters are so wrapped up in the plot that they’re inseparable.  Given this, it’s hard to discuss the movement of the plot without also discussing the characters.  The plot moves quickly enough, but it gets caught up in the journeys of self-discovery that the characters are on.  If you’re not interested in seeing a young man grapple with his religious feelings, or a bipolar man’s efforts to find a comfortable spot in his own body, or a young woman’s fight for self-identity, then you won’t enjoy the plot.  But it’s those internal quests that move the story and plot forward, and Eugenides exercises his mastery of the written word to create the engine for the plot through his character’s thoughts and emotions.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Eugenides’ books – they’re great.  While I didn’t like this one as much as Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, it is still a great example of Eugenides’ skills as an author, and contributes massively to his canon.  I’ll admit that I might not have been in the best head-space to read about quests for self and a character dealing with a massive depressive episode, so I’m looking forward to re-reading this book in the future, when I may be able to better appreciate it.  But, regardless, this was an interesting book that the universe put in my way at an interesting time of my life.

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